Review: You Won’t Get Your Kicks During The Greatest Hits Down Route 66

Michael Aguirre’s emotionally distant play with American folk music runs at 59E59 Theaters.

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From top left: Kleo Mitrokostas, Martin Ortiz, Erika Rolfsrud, and Kristoffer Cusick in The Greatest Hits Down Route 66, directed by Sarah Norris, at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Hunter Canning)

Many of the songs in The Greatest Hits Down Route 66, an unusual jukebox musical now running at 59E59 Theaters, will be familiar to anyone who went to an American public school. “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain” and “Blow the Man Down” are standards in the elementary-school repertoire, but you may not know that those ditties and hundreds of others were collected by poet Carl Sandburg in a 1927 book called The American Songbag.

That anthology was an inspiration for Michael Aguirre, who grabs a handful of those well-known tunes and plunks them into the story of an American family who take a road trip from Chicago to LA in 1999 down what’s left of the legendary Route 66. Along the way we get some “lessons” about the music from a busy-bee Narrator (Joél Acosta), who also serves as a subconscious instigator that gets some good old-fashioned family arguments started.

The problem here is not the music — which isn’t to say some of the songs’ racially insensitive origins are not problematic, as the Narrator constantly warns us. Rather, it’s that Aguirre and director Sarah Norris haven’t found a way to integrate the music with the story in a way that does not feel forced. That’s a difficulty that other jukebox musicals have, but in this case, it’s painfully obvious that there are two separate performances happening at the same time.

On the one hand, Norris has a three-piece folk band and a lead vocalist, Hannah-Kathryn “HK” Wall, kicking things off with a rendition of “I Wanna Go Home” while the narrator gives some history of Route 66 and the beginning of family road trips after World War II. This is all fairly engaging stuff, with Wall and her gorgeous voice setting us up for a concert-style presentation of the songs.

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Joél Acosta as the Narrator in The Greatest Hits Down Route 66
(© Hunter Canning)

But unfortunately, the story of the Franco family (decked out in K-Mart-couture costumes by Kara Branch) and their road trip (bare-bones set and highway projections by Anna Kiraly) intrudes in a way that immediately distances us from the music (Grace Yurich and Jennifer C. Dauphinais did the arrangements). We meet a gruff, conservative father (Kristoffer Cusick), whom the family calls “Wolf Man”; an everything’s-gonna-be-great mom named “Mother Dearest” (Erika Rolfsrud); an angsty, know-it-all teen named “The Eldest” (a memorable Martin Ortiz); and his goofy younger brother “Wee One” (Kleo Mitrokostas). The fact that these stereotypes of the American family have descriptive rather than conventional names seems like a Brechtian attempt to keep the characters’ stories and any feeling for them at arm’s length (it can’t be an accident that Wee One mentions being in a school performance The Caucasian Chalk Circle).

If that was the intent, it works. When we learn that Mother Dearest is Polish and Wolf Man is Mexican (the two sons were somehow unaware of this until now), the show begins a clumsy examination of racism in America (on more than one occasion Wolf Man inexplicably refers to his wife as a “Polack”). The plot then focuses on Wolf Man’s father, who suffered myriad acts of discrimination during his life and now lies dying in bed under the care of Wolf Man’s wealthy jerk of a brother (also Acosta). By the second half of the hour-45-minute show, the songs come fewer and farther between, and the “greatest hits” we’re promised in the title become more an afterthought as we’re dragged along with the Francos on what seems like an endless journey.

This is a shame, because when songs like “Midnight Special” are performed by Wall, smiles can be seen lighting up faces in the audience, and when Acosta and the rest of the cast get folks clapping along and singing familiar lyrics, there’s almost a feeling of community. But angry altercations between father and son, and brother and brother, pull us out of the moment and remind us, for better or worse, of the things that divide us. At the end, Aguirre gives us an unnecessary epilogue telling us what became of the Francos after their epic journey down what’s left of Route 66. Alas, by that point, we’re way past caring, and every extra minute feels like we just missed another exit.

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