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June 26, 2018
A Nostalgic Musical Trip Back to the Summer of Love
Review of ‘A Walk on the Moon’
Ariela Morgenstern, Monique Hafen, Molly Hager, Kerry O'Malley and Katie Brayben in A Walk On The Moon

It’s been almost fifty years since Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. Those heady summer days of 1969—Woodstock, Vietnam, protests, Nixon, and the first human landing and walk on the moon—still reverberate today. Especially in San Francisco, with last summer's 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love still being milked for nostalgic value as well as commercial profit. ACT’s latest musical, A Walk on the Moon, directed by Sheryl Kaller, music and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman, with book by Pamela Gray, has been adapted from Gray’s script for the 1999 film of the same name. The musical sticks to the script, creating a nostalgic look at the late ‘60s and one woman’s (Kate Brayben as Pearl) realization of long-suborned sexual yearning, her breaking of tradition and rebelling against the family, and the eventual decision she must make, between reverting to the norm, or breaking away an exploring a different universe of adventure and love. Hence the title, as the song “Walking On The Moon” and other tunes from the show highlight, all in the context of a family vacation at a Jewish family summer camp in the Catskills in July and August of 1969, near Max Yasgut’s farm, the site of Woodstock.  When the festival happens, it trips the light fantastic for Pearl, the housewife in question, as well as for other characters, throwing the camp into an uproar.

All the right elements are at work in the production. The cast is excellent, particularly Brayben, her character torn between a dull marriage to her over-worked, conventional and chauvinistic husband (Marty, played by Jonah Platt) and her attraction to the almost stereotypical “free love” hippie (and traveling blouse salesman in a van) Walker, played by Zak Resnick. Brigid O’Brien shines as Alison, Pearl’s rebellious daughter who also yearns for an alternative, as does Kerry O'Malley as Lillian, Pearl’s mother-in-law, who divines trouble in the making.  Three generations of women give voice to their desires and frustrations, opening up a generation conflict. Other characters including Rhoda (Monique Hafen) as friends of Marty and Pearl lend to the local color of the summer camp—references to latkes and knishes abound, and the camp loudspeaker chips in as well. Feminist musical, 60’s sexual awakening tale, 50’s Jewish doo-wop, a cautionary tale on male chauvinism: A Walk On The Moon brings all these elements into the mix, with mixed results.

These various components never really gel. It almost feels as though this is painting by numbers. All the right elements are here: emotional solos highlighting the housewife’s dilemma, check. The weary wisdom of the mother-in-law, check. Adolescent angst and the Age of Aquarius, check.  Male chauvinism, check.  Catskills Jewish humor, check. The score and lyrics, by Paul Scott Goodman, serve the occasion, but rarely stand out. The book, with these different aims in mind, errs on entertaining with local color, while Pearl’s journey often feels underserviced, resulting in one-dimensional male characters (except for Walker), and a story that clicks on by without really engaging the audience. However, production values are outstanding: the lush forest and homey cabins of the camp, with a moon and stars of many moods and shades in the background, almost steal the show (designed by Donyale Werle). Similarly, Tal Yarden has designed excellent projections by Tal Yarden. Shifting stars, the vibrant moon, the psychedelic festival, scrims that descend for more projections: the light show stands out. And herein lies the problem: when the stage design and light show steal the show, Houston, we have a problem.

Through July 1 at ACT's Geary Theater.

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Written by: David Hammerbeck
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