Set in the Dust Bowl in the harsh years following the Great Depression, Dust Can’t Kill Me is a new country musical by Abigail Carney (Book) and Elliah Heifetz (Music & Lyrics), which opens with an irresistible invitation: as the charming Montgomery (Paul Hinkes), guitar in hand, tells us he’ll share a tale about which he hasn’t sung about for more than ten years. He tells of an adventure he once was part of, as a group of down-on-their-luck people chose to leave the misery of their towns in search of a promised land with endless crops and water.
Firecracking Lily (Alyssa Miller) and her pregnant sister Angelina (Lily Shoretz) take on this journey along with mischievous ranch-hands, Abraham (Chris Camp) and Birch (Nathaniel Janis), and the reckless Wesley (Jamie Bogyo), all of whom are promised food and riches by the mysterious Prophet (Michael Ruocco). Troubled by the idea of leaving everything they know, but convinced by the idea that staying where they are most likely means death anyway. The travelers set out on the journey on which they bond, new romances bloom and their darkest fears will come true, as they wonder if this land even exists.
The main draw in the musical will be the truly outstanding songs by Heifetz, who crafted everything from lullabies (“Adeline”), to rousing ballads (“There’s a Feelin’”) and anthemic pieces that truly make the heart soar. His lyrics are touching, thoughtful and endlessly haunting (“I’ve got time in abundance, I’ve got time / But I ain’t got you and that’s what’s on my mind”) and as performed by the energetic cast (especially Hinkes and Miller who are extraordinary) you are convinced that these are the rare pieces that could transcend the realm of musical theater and become folk standards.
However the show leaves much to be desired with its book, which kicks off wonderfully, but as any story of search, fails in delivering something truly worthy of discovering. The first act is exceptional, but the show drags during the entire second act, as Carney, in good HBO show fashion, decides to kill off her characters or make revelations about them that don’t fit the fact that this is a story being told from Montgomery’s point of view. One of the most cringe-worthy plot twists comes in the revelation of a romance that simply would not be fathomable to a character from the 1920s. Similarly ghosts are used to make trite political statements and the Prophet is used as a scapegoat, when his intentions and origin should have been more ambiguous, more poetic...in its search for universality, the show loses its authenticity.
Dust Can't Kill Me is part of the New York International Fringe Festival. For more on FringeNYC shows, click here.
Through August 23 at Theatre 80.