(l to r) Nick Sacks and Brigid O’Brien in ACT’s ‘A Walk on the Moon.’ (Photo: Alessandra Mello)
By Jim Gladstone
In the American Conservatory Theater’s guileless, bighearted new musical, A Walk On the Moon (through July 1 at the Geary Theater), there are sweet, small elements that achieve liftoff. But they can’t compensate for larger ones that crater.
The action is set in the summer of 1969. The country is in upheaval. As the show opens, images of the Vietnam War, John Lennon and Martin Luther King, Jr. are projected onto the stage. Americans are anxiously awaiting the Apollo 11 landing (The show’s guiding, recurrent metaphor).
Everything is about to change.
Within this fraught era, A Walk on the Moon focuses on the Kantrowitz family: Father Marty (Jonah Platt) works Mondays through Fridays in a Brooklyn television repair shop. On the weekends he joins his wife Pearl (Katie Brayben), small son Danny (Elijah Cooper), rebellious teenage daughter Alison (Brigid O’Brien) and his widowed mother (Kerry O’Malley) at a rustic upstate bungalow camp— a typical summer situation for lower-middle-class Jewish New Yorkers of the time.
Based on a critically acclaimed 1999 independent film of the same title—and with the same writer, Pamela Gray, A Walk on the Moon is far more faithful to its source material than Pearl is to Marty: One of two central plot threads is Pearl’s sexual and romantic affair with Walker (Zak Resnick), an earthy salesman who regularly pulls into camp with his caravan full of women’s blouses.
Pearl yearns for a bigger, broader sense of identity than a housewife and mother, which is how she’s been perceived by herself and others since becoming pregnant with Alison at 16.
Walker, planning a cross-country trip to resettle in San Francisco after a last East Coast bash at the Woodstock concert, is close to Pearl’s age, but he’s footloose and free of commitments.
She falls hard for his sexy hippie vibe. In Walker’s alternative lifestyle, Pearl catches a whiff of her alternate life. (Which would smell of patchouli and copious pheromones). The pair’s duets include an abundance of awkwardly choreographed dry humping.
This will be a major disappointment to fans of the movie, which featured extremely wet humping: Sensational nude scenes (filmed under a rushing waterfall) between Diane Lane and a strapping young Viggo Mortensen.
Strangely, the duet that Brayben and Resnik sing during their major bout of onstage lovemaking uses “Waterfall” as its title and central metaphor. Audience members who didn’t see the film may be perplexed.
Brayben won an Olivier Award playing Carole King in the West End production of Beautiful, and her powerful, emotionally nuanced singing is one of A Walk on the Moon’s strongest assets, with composer Goodman cushioning her multifaceted voice in arrangements full of swooning cello and sparkling violin lines. His melodies, combined with her masterful tone and inflection, carry solo numbers including “Out of this World” and “Ground Beneath My Feet” and help transcend lyrics that are often simultaneously prosaic and rhyme-heavy (He kicked my heart/I fell apart) co-written by Goodman and Gray.
As Walker, Resnick’s shoulder length straw-colored hair, six-foot-plus height and lanky, sometimes bare torso are lovely to look at, but the portrayal of his crunchy granola character is so laid back that it’s almost recessive. We can’t feel the animal charisma that Pearl and her fellow campground ladies are so thrown by.
There’s also a problematic recessiveness to Resnick’s singing; he tends to swallow the ends of phrases, making their lyrics unintelligible. The vocal bar set by Brayben is high, which makes their pairing all the more awkward.
A Walk on the Moon’s secondary storyline focuses on Pearl’s strained relationship with adolescent Alison. Daughter finds mother square. Mother is unconsciously envious of the new possibilities open women of a younger generation.
As Alison, Brigid O’Brien is a standout. Her phenomenal brass-tinged voice makes her altogether believable as the offspring of Brayben. She also gets the script’s best zingers, delivered with plenty of rebellious teen spirit as she complains about her parents’ complacency toward Washington politics and the Vietnam War. In one particularly amusing exchange, she refuses to share cowboy-hatted little brother so long as his cap guns are present.
She’s also the only member of the cast who maintains a credible Noo Yawk accent from start to finish. The notion that most of A Walk on the Moon’s characters are mid-century Brooklyn Jews requires suspension of disbelief to a Harry Potter degree.
Curly mopped Nick Sacks plays Ross, Alison’s 16-year-old romantic interest with a big voice and magnetic presence, is a fine match for O’Brien. He’s a sweet Jewish boy who improvises folk songs that capture the burgeoning of both political awareness and hormone levels with Dick Nixon jokes and similarly goofy smarts.
Visually, the production is beautiful, with bucolic Catskills sets by Donyale Werle, period-perfect 1960s costumes by Linda Cho, and nuanced lighting design by Robert Wierzel that features color-shifting skyscapes that amplify the drama’s changing moods.
And there’s the exquisite coordination of director Sheryl Kaller’s staging and Tal Yarden’s video projections, which appear on two scrims; one far upstage and one about halfway downstage, bisecting the playing area when it is occasionally lowered throughout the evening. The show’s most sumptuous scenes feature four translucent layers of visual interplay, with some cast members positioned in front of the forward scrim, others sandwiched between the two scrims, and those powerful projections running on both.
But those projections also underscore the show’s critical weakness. From its opening juxtaposition of quaint woodland cabins and riotous national tumult, A Walk On the Moon throws down its own gauntlet, inviting audiences to wonder how the era’s broad social changes will manifest amid the Kantrowitzes and their clan. How? Superficially.
By story’s end, what earlier seemed like an eminent nuclear family meltdown has been averted, with Pearl resolving that a momwife life is right for her. Alison’s opening provocations about fighting the man fade away into Teenbeat romance. And throughout this woman-centered show, even as lip-service is paid to most touchstone 60s social issues, feminism itself is oddly bypassed. Even Pearl’s escapist fantasies are about coupling up with a different sort of man, not any particular personal ambitions.
Projected upon those scrims, the cultural issues of the 60s remain mostly untouched. They are gauzy, evanescent, and as far away as the moon.
A Walk On the Moon
American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater
415 Geary Street
Through July 1
Jim Gladstone is the theater critic for San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter and a freelance creative consultant.