Review: A Walk on the Moon Makes a Successful Landing at George Street Playhouse
The new musical, based on a 1999 film, is having its East Coast premiere in New Jersey.
The course of history changed forever in 1969, as astronauts landed on the moon and Woodstock revolutionized the music world. But these cultural landmarks take a backseat to personal revelations in A Walk on the Moon, a charming new musical receiving its East Coast premiere at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Adapted from the 1999 movie of the same name, A Walk on the Moon chronicles the seismic shift that occurs in one ordinary woman's life. It also serves as a love letter to a forgotten time and place: specifically, the bungalow colonies of the Catskills that served as a refuge for middle-class Jewish families from the outer boroughs. It succeeds as both a piece of nostalgia and a warmly sympathetic examination of desires achieved and unfulfilled.
The setting is strategic, on both counts. Every summer, Pearl Kantrowitz (Jackie Burns) makes the trek from Flatbush to Dr. Fogler's Bungalows with her good-natured husband, Marty (Jonah Platt) and her clairvoyant mother-in-law, Lillian (the hilarious Jill Abramovitz, with a Brooklyn accent so thick you could spread it on toast). Married young, Pearl and Marty are parents to rebellious peacenik Alison (Carly Gendell) and precocious Danny (Cody Braverman). As the end of an era looms, Pearl begins to feel hemmed in by her comfortable domestic life: "Ever feel like the whole decade's gone by and we haven't been in it?" she muses to her generally bewildered husband.
Marty and the other men in the community commute back to Brooklyn each workweek, leaving their wives to play mahjong, read novels by the lake, and tend to the children. His duties as a television repairman keep him increasingly busy, as everyone wants to ensure a working set to best experience the thrill of Apollo 11. Left by herself upstate, Pearl's increasing loneliness and curiosity drive her into the arms of Walker Jerome (John Arthur Greene), a free-spirited hippie who sells blouses on the campground, hoping to earn enough for a one-way ticket to San Francisco.
Librettist Pamela Gray, who also wrote the film's screenplay, expands and refines her original premise for the stage. She provides a compelling backstory for Pearl, who dreamed of being a journalist before her teenaged pregnancy redirected her toward the life of a wife and mother. In one of the show's best numbers, "Out of This World," she conducts an imaginary interview with Neil Armstrong that ends up communicating her own wants and needs.
The songwriting team of Paul Scott Goodman and AnnMarie Milazzo have an ear for the period's music — it's refreshing to hear a score that actually reflects the moment in which it's set, rather than sounding blandly contemporary. Rock, soul, doo-wop, and folk swirl together with irresistible melodies and revealing lyrics that both move the plot forward and home in on the characters' inner lives. Only "Yesterday Today," an angsty ballad that expresses Alison's adolescent disappointment with her philandering mother (and the world at large), comes across as too modern and monotonous, like a rejected cut from Jagged Little Pill.
Director Sheryl Kaller keeps the proceedings moving with verve and draws fine work from her talented cast. Burns — who holds the title of Broadway's longest serving Elphaba — finally finds in Pearl an original role worthy of her immense talents. Her voice shakes the rafters with little effort, but more impressively, she manages plenty of attractive soft singing and moments of quiet introspection that uncover Pearl's conflicted longing. She generates believable chemistry with Greene, who flaunts a rousing rock tenor and looks every inch the beatnik in Linda Cho's spot-on costumes.
Platt finds the compassionate center of a man who finds happiness in the life he settled for and can't entirely reconcile his wife's desire for change. His singing voice is pretty and warm, with an impressive falsetto, although he occasionally flattens out on sustained high notes. Gendell could do more to push her performance past the realm of generic sullen teenager, but she convinces in Alison's sweet rapport with Ross Epstein (Wesley Zurick, fresh-voiced and endearing), her summertime boyfriend. Their gentle discovery of first love provides a wholesome mirror to Pearl and Walker's unbridled passion.
The production relies too heavily on Tal Yarden's projection designs, which occasionally resemble cheesy computer screensavers. Yarden is credited as a "scenic consultant," but no actual set designer is listed, and the results show. Luckily Josh Prince's atmospheric choreography often makes up for the lack of physical representation, including a thrilling extended scene at Woodstock set to Richie Havens' "Freedom" (the score's sole jukebox number). Although this element should be refined in anticipation of future productions, A Walk on the Moon is pretty much ready for liftoff.