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See Rock City & Other Destinations

Transport Group's production of this inventive new musical about a group of diverse Americans proves to be a truly moving experience.

Sally Wilfert, Mamie Parris,
and Donna Lynne Champlin
in See Rock City
(© Carol Rosegg)
Theatergoers should give themselves plenty of time to get to the Duke on 42nd for See Rock City & Other Destinations, which features music by Brad Alexander and book and lyrics by Adam Mathias. The musical, exquisitely directed by Jack Cummings III, has one of the most intriguing pre-show environments of recent memory. Even more marvelously, the artistry displayed before the show starts never flags, creating a remarkable -- and moving -- theatrical experience.

Combined, the pieces feel like a slim volume of short stories that have come to life on the stage. And from the opening sequence, which focuses on Jess (Bryce Ryness), a young man who's trying to connect to the world around him, to the final one, which centers on Kate (played with appealing passion by Donna Lynne Champlin), a bride who's not sure whether she should take the plunge on her wedding day, the musical's genuine heart and humor simply transports audiences.

Cummings' masterful production, which takes a cue from the stagecraft of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, unfolds on a stage that's nearly bare, except for an enormous piece of scaffolding that's placed at one corner. (Dane Laffrey has provided the spare scenic design as well as the carefully chosen, character-defining costumes.) Locations are defined by R. Lee Kennedy, whose gorgeous lighting design can indicate everything from a murky sunrise in Georgia to a baking mid-day sun on Coney Island. Cummings and Kennedy also employ the seven-member cast to help create mood, who are deployed to manipulate flashlights, fluorescent strips and large lights on wheels.

As the musical jets from story to story around the U.S., Alexander's score proves incredibly diverse. His idioms include country-western rock, pop ballads and even a cleverly conceived homage to early 20th century tunes that's delivered heartfeltly by Ryan Hilliard, playing an elderly stroke victim who's visiting the Alamo with his adult granddaughter (Sally Wilfert). The tune sounds like a contemporary showtune -- disjointed and slightly dissonant -- but underneath there are the echoes of an Irving Berlin or Jerome Kern standard. Equally impressive are Adam Mathias' lyrics, which contain clever and unexpected rhymes and which brim with deeply felt emotion and often hilarious jokes.

The ensemble, who work tirelessly throughout, deliver powerfully, and the fact that their vocals are unamplified only adds to the immediacy and intimacy of the production. Each performer has a moment to shine, and whether it's Wilfert's carefully calibrated turn as the granddaughter who's resigned herself to a single life or Mamie Parris' incandescent portrayal of a sweet southern waitress who decides to join Jess on his trip to Rock City, they work their ways into theatergoers' hearts with ease.

Stanley Bahorek is particularly winning as a geek hoping to make contact with ETs near Roswell, while Ryness and Bahorek bring a pair of arrogant prep school boys just discovering their sexuality to full-blooded life with angry, confused intensity. Charm factors in, too, particularly when Champlin, Wilfert and Parris join forces to play three sisters who have taken an Alaskan cruise to strew their deceased father's ashes. Bickering turns to merriment as they remember, and then perform, a song he wrote for them as girls, provoking smiles and bittersweet laughter from them as well as the audience.