It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a rocket, and you’ll swear you saw one during The Marriott Theatre‘s “October Sky,” recently extended through Oct. 18. Just like the helicopter that didn’t land in the theater’s 2008 production of “Les Miserables,” the magical stagecraft so often evident at the theater in the round on Milwaukee Avenue makes us see what we hope to see, even if it isn’t there.
In addition to this skill, the theater frequently steps out and takes a chance on a premiere. Sometimes it’s a Chicago area first, sometimes a Midwest premiere, and in the past decade six have been world premieres. One is on the boards right now. “October Sky,” based on the beautiful 1999 film of the same name, is a brand new musical, with music and lyrics by Michael Mahler and book by Aaron Thielen.
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The 1999 film of the same name was inspired by “Rocket Boys,” a 1998 best-selling memoir by Homer H. Hickam, Jr., a coal miner’s son whose awe at Sputnik fueled by dreams of getting out of Coalwood, West Virginia, eventually landed him a college scholarship and subsequent career at NASA.
Mahler, who also composed the words and lyrics for Marriott’s 2012 world premiere “HERO,” pored over the memoir and saw the movie. “The drama adapted well as a musical,” he says. “In fact, it felt like a story that demanded to be sung.” He cited the dynamic plot with Sputnik passing overhead, homemade rockets flying and crashing, not to mention an epic father-son conflict between a man who makes his living in the depths of the earth and a boy whose eyes are on the sky. “The stakes are so high for everyone in this story,” he says.
“But we had to be careful to be true to the characters because they were real people,” Mahler says, adding, “The movie was warmly received, and that was a help, but we were lucky that it was not the kind of film where the audience memorizes the script word for word, so we had the freedom to tell the story in our own way.”
Mahler’s melodies have considerable charm, with several memorable numbers including the rousing “Big Creek Missile Agency,” the funeral hymn for a dead miner titled “Return to the Earth,” and the lovely “Look to the Stars,” which concludes the show.
But it is Mahler’s lyrics that catapult the story forward and bear it skyward. Instead of trying to be clever, he chooses instead clear simple words that fall easily on your ears and tug at your heart.
For example, the song “Stars Shine Down,” sung by Homer in his moment of deepest despair:
“The stars shine down from the heavens
As clear and bright as the dawn,
But when you’re bound to the earth
By the bonds of your birth,
Then you look down. You grow up. You move on.”
The script for the show was written by Thielen, lead artistic director at Marriott. He is especially proud of the theater’s record on world premieres. “Six in the last 10 years,” he says, not shy to boast, listing “All Night Strut” in 2006, “The Bowery Boys” in 2008, “For the Boys” in 2011, “Now & Forever” in 2013, as well as “HERO” and “October Sky.”
This present premiere began in 2013 when Chris Herzberger of Universal Stage Productions met with Thielen about the possibility of developing a musical based on a film from Universal Studios. “Chris is from Naperville and he has been to Marriott,” Thielen explains. “We batted around a few ideas and came up with ‘October Sky.’ He was familiar with Michael and ‘HERO,’ so we got to work.”
Both Thielen and Mahler give a shout-out to Marriott audiences. “The theater has the largest subscription base in the country,” Mahler says. “And our long-time subscribers are great,” Thielen adds. “They support us as we do premieres.”
And Marriott’s magical stagecraft doesn’t hurt a bit.