People say “the sky is the limit” and usually don’t mean it literally, but in 1950’s West Virginia, Homer Hickam and his friends took that as a goal and decided to aim for the sky by building rockets. The new musical OCTOBER SKY at The Old Globe is inspired by the Universal Pictures film and the book Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickam, Jr.
Motivated by Sputnik passing over their town, and Homer’s growing realization that this coal mining town is not where he wants his future to be, these boys decide to build and launch a rocket. With hopes of science fair winnings and college scholarships, this is the chance to escape this town and become something more.
Homer (Kyle Selig) has the support of his mother Elise (Kerry O’Malley) while he continues to baffle his coal miner father, John (Ron Bohmer). John is one in long line of Hickam’s to work in the mine, and he takes offense at Homer’s reluctance to embrace it as his future. Meanwhile, all Homer wants is some sign that his father even notices him, and not the boy he wants Homer to become.
As Homer, Selig is a bright eyed dreamer (with a strong and expressive voice) who happens to teach himself advanced mathematics with the support and help of his friends and their teacher Miss Riley (Sandra DeNise). His fellow Rocket Boys are Quentin (Connor Russell), Roy Lee (Patrick Rooney) and O’Dell (Austyn Myers).
As a group, the Rocket Boys are the best when they are plotting and building together. Their enthusiasm and energy are mirrored in the song “We’re Gonna Build a Rocket” with its rock and roll vibe. Or when they declare themselves “The Big Creek Missile Agency”, and you know it’s in earnest because of their perfect harmonies, and even just in the great glee in watching their rockets launch or explode trying.
“To the Mine” is the show opener, and it sets the tone that the mine and the darkness in its depths are the maIn Focus and livelihood, of this town. As it is immediately followed by the song “Never Getting out Alive” it is quickly made clear that this town is both the cancer and the cure for the longevity of this town and its inhabitants.
The music is a mix of bluegrass, rock, and country and every hope and dream of the town is expressed in song. It seems that most of those dreams are some form of “get out of this town” in one way or another. In “Look to the Stars” Selig makes the most with this poignant song while hitting some soaring notes. Another stand out song is “Moonshine”, sung by Destan Owens as Bathtub Amos along with his jug band, a lovely and cheerful jazzy accompaniment as the boys get drunk on the moonshine they are purchasing for their rocket fuel.
Yet, because so many of the songs seem to be of a thoughtful yearning or reflecting nature, and so close together, it can seem like the show is getting in its own way of building the momentum to character progress. By the middle of the second act you could find yourself wondering just when something is going to happen. The music and the voices are lovely, but when the second act has 6 reprises you start to wonder if maybe some of them could be cut or utilized in a different way and the show could still make its point.
The set is gorgeous and well used, with a worn mining track in an arc over the stage, and a giant wheel that with every turn is the life line in and out of the mine. Much like John Hickam constantly reminding Homer, this scenery will not let you forget that this is a mining town. When the miners go down into the mine in the elevator, watching them and their lit head lamps disappear is an incredibly striking effect. More so when the main character is on the elevator even though you know it is the very last place he wants to be.
And yes, there are rockets being launched in the show! There is an impressive showing of rockets as the boys try to get one into the sky without blowing up. The first one takes out part of Homer’s Mother’s fence, but after that they all progress until they soar straight up into the sky.
Ultimately though, this show is still a work in progress. While it knows the direction it is going in and has moments of beauty and brilliance, it is also bogged down by having a lot going on at once. After all the build up to launching the rocket and the boys dreams, it would be nice to have a bit more wrap up on their lives beyond winning the science fair (all four guys went on to college, and Homer went to work in NASA after serving in the Army in Vietnam).
Like its main characters and their rockets, this show isn’t done growing up yet, but it is worth watching it progress on its way to being out of this world.