For some reason, when I think about “October Sky” it comes out in the voice of Stefan, Bill Hader’s club character on SNL. ‘This show has everything: rockets, coal, a love song to coal, daddy issues, moonshine, secret finance, songs about following your dreams, more songs about following your dreams.’ There’s a lot going on but, unfortunately, nothing you haven’t seen a thousand times before.
This West Coast premiere is based on the 1999 movie, which was in turn based on the book by Homer Hickam. Set in Coalwood, West Virginia in the late 50s, the story follows Homer (Kyle Selig) who is inspired by Sputnik to build a rocket of his own. He is assisted by friends Roy Lee (Patrick Rooney), Quentin (Connor Russell) and O’Dell (Austyn Myers), and supported by his teacher Miss Riley (Sandra DeNise), mother Elsie (Kerry O’Malley) and mechanic Ike Bykovski (Joel Blum).
The show’s strength is in its treatment of the coal miners and the people in Coalwood. It’s a place where men lose their lives in the mine, and their families lose their company housing the following week. Still, they are a stoic lot and committed to each other.
It’s no surprise that Homer wants to get out of this dusty old coal town, and many of his songs reflect that sentiment. The repetition is a little bewildering. At some point you just want to say enough, we get it.
Homer’s father John (Ron Bohmer) has had enough as well. He runs the mine and must juggle safety, union concerns and omnipresent fears that the company will close the mine. He tolerates this rocket business until it interferes with the serious job of pulling coal from the ground.
Bohmer’s nuance sticks out in a show that is notably unnuanced. He gets cast as the heavy, but he’s only trying to take care of his men and keep the mine open. Selig excels at the youthful exuberance but can come off petulant when dealing with his father. Blum’s Bykovski has only a few moments onstage, but they’re great moments.
The rustic set and rocket pyrotechnics are beautifully done. Rooms appear and disappear seamlessly, clouds move in the background, the mine elevator comes with its own sense of foreboding.
At 2.5 hours plus, the show could use some trimming, and should probably start with the song “Moonshine,” which includes a character named Bathtub Amos (Destan Owens) and some disappointing choreography.
At its best, “October Sky” paints a picture of an America that maybe wasn’t quite as great as we remember. On the other hand, the show’s length and constant repetition make it a bit ponderous. There’s a lot to be said for making your point and moving on.