Transfer “The Bridges of Madison County” to The Catskills in the summer of 1969 and you’ve got the basic idea of “A Walk on the Moon,” the musical that George Street Playhouse is currently presenting at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center — in its pandemic-delayed New Jersey premiere, with modifications made after previous productions in Poughkeepsie and San Francisco.
In this show, which is being advertised as “the largest musical production in George Street’s nearly 50-year history,” middle-aged housewife and mom-of-two Pearl Kantrowitz (Jackie Burns) has a life-changing affair with Walker Jerome (John Arthur Greene). A long-haired, jeans-wearing blouse salesman with the soul of a poet and a dog-eared copy of Kerouac’s “On the Road” in his pocket, Jerome comes into her life unexpectedly while she’s vacationing at Dr. Fogler’s Bungalow Colony in Mountaindale, N.Y.
Or, as Pearl puts it — in one of the Yiddish phrases that dot the musical — she shtups the blouse man. And all hell, of course, breaks loose.
This is not groundbreaking theater. But with a solid batch of songs, including a few show-stoppers, by Paul Scott Goodman and AnnMarie Milazzo (with additional lyrics by Pamela Gray, who also wrote the book), it’s still a very satisfying musical, and a great showcase for Broadway veteran Burns’ powerful voice and commanding stage presence.
Tony-nominated Sheryl Kaller directs the production, which is based on the 1999 film of the same name — a non-musical that co-starred Diane Lane and Viggo Mortensen and featured a screenplay by Gray. The setting of the story is ingenious, allowing Gray to work in not just the moon landing (a symbol of mankind moving forward, while Pearl feels stuck in place) and Woodstock (which takes place near the resort where the Kantrowitzes are vacationing) but also a general sense of political and social change.
Pearl’s teenaged daughter Alison (Carly Gendell) embraces the change whole-heartedly; she doesn’t see why the family has to do the same boring thing every summer, and dismisses the resort’s July 4 barbecue as “patriotic puke.” She finds, though, a kindred spirit in a boy at the camp, Ross (Wesley Zurick), who writes and sings protest songs.
“They don’t even know there’s a revolution going on,” she tells him, of her parents.
Pearl — who had dreamed about becoming a reporter when she was young — is torn. She is understandably reluctant to cheat on her bland TV-repairman husband, Marty (Jonah Platt), and upend her world. But she is waking up to the idea that some kind of change is necessary, for herself and the world. “Ever feel like the whole decade’s gone by and we haven’t been in it?” she asks.
Her wise, wise-cracking mother-in-law Lilian (Jill Abramovitz) and three other vacationing couples — gossiping, mahjong-playing ladies and their hard-rocking, regular-guy husbands — form her social circle. But she keeps what’s going on from them rather than confiding in anyone that she’s considering the unthinkable.
“A Walk on the Moon” has some problems. Alison is given an explosive, angst-filled solo number after she learns the truth about her mother’s adultery, but this doesn’t really develop naturally from what has come before. The three other couples at the resort are pretty indistinguishable from each other. And the pre-Woodstock discussion of the event seems a little unrealistic: In reality, nobody knew it was going to be an epochal event until it happened, but the characters in this musical talk like they know exactly what is coming.
Also, Pearl has a big final number, “Not Willing to Lose,” that loses a bit of its impact because the story has basically been resolved before it even begins.
On the positive side, Goodman and Milazzo do a good job of incorporating elements of the rock, R&B and folk music of the era into their songs, without simply imitating hits of the day. (A recording of Richie Havens’ “Freedom,” though, is smartly used to add authenticity to the wild Woodstock scene). And though Marty is underdeveloped as a character throughout most of the musical, he finally comes into his own, as a salt-of-the-earth family man, in an excellent, heart-tugging Act II ballad, “We Made You.”
Despite its flaws, “A Walk on the Moon” has a lot to offer: some moving music, some laughs, and Burns’ powerhouse central performance. Some more fine-tuning may be helpful. On the other hand, how could a musical about the ’60s not be a little messy?
George Street Playhouse presents “A Walk on the Moon” through May 21 at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.
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