The latest example of the genre is 10 Million Miles, now receiving its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company. The show is directed by Michael Mayer, this year's Tony Award winner for his work on Spring Awakening, which began its theatrical life at the Atlantic last June.
10 Million Miles is built around the pre-existing songs of two-time Grammy Award winner Patty Griffin, with only a small percentage of new numbers having been written expressly for this project. The songs are wonderful on their own terms, but they function very poorly as musical theater numbers. Over and above their lack of dramatic thrust, several of them contain numerous vocal pauses and rests, thereby presenting the performers with the unfair challenge of trying to "act through" a continuing series of dead spaces. Time and again, someone will sing a lyric line and then there will be four, five, or six beats of vocal rest before the next entrance. It's all rather annoying.
The framework for the songs, as written by playwright Keith Bunin, is as simple as a fried pie: Good ol' boy Duane (Matthew Morrison) and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Molly (Irene Molloy) climb into a pickup truck and embark on a road trip from the Southern tip of Florida to Upstate New York, taking some geographical and emotional detours along the way. It's not a bad setup, but Bunin's book is short on dramatic conflict, to say the least.
On the plus side, the show has four aces in its cast. Morrison and Molloy are just right as Duane and Molly, singing soulfully and setting off so many sparks with their delivery of the dialogue -- not to mention their passionate, open-mouthed kisses -- that it's clear why these two can't quit each other. Mare Winningham and Skip Sudduth contribute lovely character sketches of the various relatives, friends, and strangers whom Duane and Molly meet on their journey. (Winningham's rendition of the song "Making Pies" is one of the show's highlights.)
Aided by the lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, set designer Derek McLane effectively depicts I-95 and various locales including a motel room, Duane's mother's house, the boardwalk in Atlantic City, and a hospital. The show's major prop, the pickup truck, looks authentic, but it is distractingly moved about by stagehands instead of hydraulics. Musical director Tim Weil is responsible for the excellent arrangements and orchestrations of the songs; good work is also done by sound designer Brian Ronan and costume designer Michael Krass.
The Atlantic Theater Company has recently had a series of triumphs, from last year's The Lieutenant of Inishmore to Spring Awakening to a highly acclaimed production of The Voysey Inheritance. But with 10 Million Miles, lightning has not struck again on West 20th Street.