The sky’s the limit, and not just for the rocket boys of The Old Globe’s October Sky but so too for the tuneful, uplifting musical adaptation of the 1999 Universal Pictures family classic, a West Coast Premiere that could well prove to be Broadway-bound.
It wasn’t the far reaches of outer space but the deep-down depths of the West Virginia coal mines that seemed to be high school senior Homer Hickam’s likely future back in 1957, the year the Soviets launched the first earth-orbiting artificial satellite into the heavens, the sight of which inspired awe in some Coalwood locals and stoked Cold War fears in others,
To Homer (Kyle Selig), however, seeing Sputnik in the October sky promised a future far from the mining town that was the likely dead-end destination of all but the football scholarship jocks of his soon-to-graduate Class Of ‘58.
October Sky tells Homer’s story, and that of his fellow Rocket Boy besties Roy Lee (Patrick Rooney), O’Dell (Austyn Myers), and Quentin (Connor Russell), whose initial attempts at rocket launching prove as amusing as they are laughable.
Still, with an inspirational teacher (Sandra DeNise as Miss Riley) urging the boys to move forward, a mother (Kerry O’Malley as Elsie Hickam) willing to stand up for her son against a husband (Ron Bohmer as mine superintendent John Hickam) who takes it as a personal affront that Homer should aim higher than the mines, and a pretty, encouraging girlfriend (Eliza Palasz as Dorothy) by his side, Homer refuses to take “No” for an answer.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Brian Hill and Aaron Thielen’s book takes some liberties with Lewis Colick’s screenplay, which took its own occasional liberties with Hickam’s book. Gone, for instance, is the forest fire the boys are arrested for allegedly starting, and Homer’s high school romance is one that his movie counterpart could only dream of.
Still, these liberties help turn October Sky into that most American of theatrical genres, a musical that Hill and Thielen have constructed with a rocket builder’s precision, just one reason a Broadway run may well be in the cards.
Michael Mahler’s songs could be another, described by their composer-lyricist as a mix of Americana and bluegrass and Appalachian folk and 1950s rock-and-roll, and so worth a second and third listen that it’s a shame there’s no cast recording CD to take home and savor.
From the show-opening, scene-setting “To The Mine,” to “Never Getting Out Alive,” reflecting the bleak future lying ahead for Coalwood’s high school seniors, to the inspiring “Look To The Stars” and “We’re Gonna Build A Rocket,” Mahler’s songs give musical voice to interior monologs, advance plot, and provide abundant opportunities for October Sky’s sensational cast to shine.
Just as it did for Jake Gyllenhaal before him, the role of Homer portends big things ahead for the thoroughly winning Selig, who has us rooting for this Rocket Boy to take off (as Selig’s career most certainly will if his stellar work here is any indication).
Myers, Rooney, and Russell provide delightful support, taking characters made iconic on the silver screen and making them their huggable, unforgettable own.
Joel Blum (as Polish machine shop worker Ike Bykovsky) and Kevyn Morrow (as union leader Ken Dubbonet) are terrific too, as are Rebecca Bellingham (Mary Bykovski), Will Branner (Buck), James Royce Edwards (Jake), Steve Gouveia (Earl), Destan Owens (Bathtub Amos), Liam Quealy (Jim), Lance Arthur Smith (Otis), Betsy Stewart (Emily Sue), Nick Sullivan (Mr. Turner), Scott Wakefield (Minister), Angela Wildflower (Harriet), and ensemble members Nicolette Burton, John Cardoza, and Clay Stefanki.
Rachel Rockwell directs with a cinematic eye and a focus on authenticity, and though October Sky isn’t a dancy show, Rockwell does get to show off her choreographic ingenuity in the bluegrass toe-tapper “Moonshine,” featuring Owens’ show-stopping lead vocals.
Scenic designer Kevin Depinet and lighting designer Japhy Weideman give us not only the dangerous darkness of the West Virginia coal mines but the breathtaking beauty of the hills that surround them (the latter thanks too to Shawn Sagady’s stunning projection design). Linda Cho’s period costumes capture both era and environment to perfection while Shawn Sagady’s crystal-clear sound design is Broadway-caliber every step of the way as is Charlie Alterman’s musical direction (and the orchestra he conducts).
Anjee Nero is production stage manager. Additional program credits go to Bruce Coughlin (orchestrations), Courtney Cerny (assistant director and assistant choreographer), and Howie Cherpakov, CSA (casting).
Old-fashioned in the very best sense of the term, yet thoroughly modern in conception and execution, October Sky makes for as crowd-pleasing a musical as you’re likely to see any time soon. Like the citizens of Coalwood when they first watched Homer’s rockets soar nearly six decades ago, expect to be standing up and cheering this exhilarating new musical theater gem.
Donald And Darlene Shiley Stage, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.
October 8, 2106
Photos: Jim Cox