The intentions of Mask, the new musical at the Pasadena Playhouse, seem to be truly honorable — to tell an inspiring tale of a pair of adventurous, courageous individuals. Sadly, the end product is a show full of treacly dialogue, surprisingly dull songs, and aimless performances. Moreover, it becomes clear that the true-life story of Rocky Dennis (Allen E. Read), an inspiring youth afflicted by a degenerative disease, and his tough-as-nails, drug-addicted biker mom, Rusty (Michelle Duffy), simply does not cry out to be musicalized.
As those who saw the Oscar-winning 1985 film of the same name starring Cher and Eric Stolz know, people initially fear Rocky’s elongated face upon meeting him. But those who take the time to look inside soon realize that Rocky is a conscientious, loving boy — and one who refuses to listen to the doctors’ constant deadly prognoses. Unfortunately, the musical’s creators — librettist Anna Hamilton Phelan (who also wrote the film) and pop songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil — continually remind the audiences that they have to ignore appearances. For example, the opening number “Come Along For The Ride” hammers that sentiment home with its blatant “don’t judge a book by its cover” aphorisms.
That same sense of pontification is used for Rusty. When it’s finally exposed why she takes drugs — an explanation that is actually heartbreaking — it’s presented in such an overstated manner that the effect is distancing instead of bringing us closer to the character. As a rule, the songs don’t emit from the characters’ emotions or forward the story; instead, they just tell the audience what’s already been gathered by the dialogue. Another missed opportunity occurs in the second act when Rocky meets a loving blind girl (Sarah Glendening). They sing a song about colors in their first scene together — and the next time we see them, they’re professing their love. We’ve missed all the tender scenes that illustrate how their love has bloomed.
Richard Maltby Jr.’s direction is another problem. The actors move around in ways that make it seem that they have not given any thought to motivation, and everyone talks with their hands or punctuates their sentences by pointing their fingers.
Given these challenges, Duffy is to be commended for fighting to get to the core of Rusty, a woman using alcohol and drugs as an anesthetic for a difficult life. Read, who is the show’s biggest asset, has a powerful voice and is given moments to demonstrate it. He also gives the only spontaneous performance. The rest of the cast, however, often sounds stilted and confused, particularly Michael Lanning as Rocky’s mentor, Dozer.
Scenic designer Robert Brill overuses a revolving stage, but his backdrop has a great sense of color. Costume designer Maggie Morgan clothes the disco-era inhabitants in appropriately loud shirts and tight pants, and make-up artist Michael Westmore does a remarkable job of turning Read into Rocky. The prosthetics look natural and never impede Read from performing or emoting realistically.
While the Dennis’ tale is a great one, it’s best conveyed through the already-made movie and not this misguided musical.