There were beautiful costumes in Memphis. And there was Lea Salonga’s showstopping “Love Look Away” in the revival of Flower Drum Song. And Stephanie J. Block’s entire performance in The Boy from Oz. The Ragtime revival gave us Bobby Steggert and Thou Shalt Not made Norbert Leo Butz a star.
Bad shows are sometimes capable of doing real good in the world.
Such is the case with See Rock City and Other Destinations, which is playing through August 14 at The Duke on 42nd Street.
It starts off with what looks more like a performance art piece than a musical: An enormous pile of folding chairs—toppled over each other like a mountain of tangled spiders—sits backlit in one corner of an empty room. The cast will spend the first 15 minutes of the show unknotting that pile, pulling down the chairs and setting them up around the room. Then they invite the audience to sit.
For a show whose songs and scenes work so hard to be Moving and to Reveal Universal Truth, the gag with the chairs comes closest to achieving those goals. As the cast goes about their work, they welcome the audience and interact with each other. For those moments, the push and pull between audience and actor, show and reality, becomes the focus.
But the show can’t sustain that momentum. The scenes that follow—a series of unrelated vignettes with travel as a central theme—are intended to show extraordinary moments in the everyday, but really, they just seem unrealistic and forced. In one scene, a pair of overzealous schoolboys cut class to go to Coney Island. Unless they were raised on the moon, live in bubbles or have no friends, it seems unlikely that any real teenager would think of Coney Island as a place for romance or danger. The whole show suffers from this subtly distorted reality: In another, a bride contemplates going over Niagara Falls in a barrel rather than walk down the aisle.
By the end, love is found and insight is gained. Or at least the soaring note at the end of the final power ballad seems to indicate as much. The characters in the show, at least, appear to have figured it all out. If only life were that uncomplicated for the people in the folding chairs.