Theater Review: "October Sky"

Kevin Depinet’s set is varied, much of it is movable and scenes are often changed at the drop of a scrim or a light cue.
Photo credit:
Jim Cox

I was in high school when the Russians sent Sputnik skyward and changed the course of history, triggering the Space Race. I remember the fear, excitement and near hysteria it caused – and the sudden decision of San Diego High School to teach Russian in the next year.

I was one who took that class (taught by the Spanish teacher, who never did tell us how much Russian he’d taken at UCLA, but he certainly knew more than we did).

But man’s interest in the stars goes back millennia before Sputnik, and “October Sky” – in its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe through Oct. 23– is a new musical that combines these two strands of history via Homer Hickam (Kyle Selig) in Coalwood, West Virginia. Homer is inspired by the Sputnik launch but he also has another reason to “Look to the Stars:” to escape the coal mining fate of his fathers and “Build a Rocket.”

Brian Hill and Aaron Thielen’s book, based on Universal Pictures’ 1999 film and Hickam’s book “Rocket Boys,” boasts a cast of identifiable and often charming characters, given appropriate (if perhaps a few too many) songs by Michael Mahler and all presented with spectacular production values.

Kevin Depinet’s set is varied, much of it is movable and scenes are often changed at the drop of a scrim or a light cue.

Homer spearheads the rocket-building experiment, recruiting three high school classmates for the effort.

He’ll have to do it against long odds: his dad John (Ron Bohmer), superintendent of the Olga mine in Coalwood, is counting on Homer to join and then succeed him in the mine. He thinks the notion of building a rocket is not just nonsense, but could put the mine and its men in danger.

Homer wants to go to college, but is told there will be no money for that. His “straight-D student” elder brother Jim (Liam Quealy) will beat him to it by getting an athletic scholarship.

But curiosity and passion will go a long way, as will encouragement from teacher Miss Riley (Sandra DeNise), who challenges her students with the Robert Browning quote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

She also saves the boys from punishment when she tells principal Mr. Turner (Nick Sullivan) that they were only doing “As They’re Told” when they brought their rocket to school.

Homer reads everything he can get his hands on about rocketry (including a coveted book kindly supplied by Miss Riley), but when push comes to shove, he needs the mine’s metal shop guy Ike Bykovski (Joel Blum). Ike, a Polish refugee, knows Homer’s dad will not approve, but agrees to help the boys anyway.

Homer’s mother Elsie (Kerry O’Malley) isn’t sure what to make of his ambitions, but gives him good advice when she tells him to make sure that whatever he does, he’s “On Solid Ground.”

Homer’s girlfriend Dorothy (Eliza Palasz) doesn’t know why Homer can’t be happy (with her) in Coalwood, but even she will eventually come to see that their might be life outside the mines.

Sputnik inspired both fear and wonder, and resulted in international competition and a burst of scientific creativity to be “first” in other endeavors.

“October Sky” gives the audience something we don’t often get in theater: someone to root for. The opening night audience was so captivated by this story that emotional distance was impossible: there were audible gasps at the flops and cheers at the successes of the Rocket Boys.

You’ll cheer, too, and though the show needs tightening and could drop a few of the songs, “October Sky” is a definite winner. The cast is uniformly excellent (my favorite was Blum’s Ike Bykovsky) and the production values are nothing short of spectacular. Kudos also to Charlie Alterman and mighty seven-piece orchestra. See this before it moves on.

The details

“October Sky” plays through October 23, 2016 at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or theoldglobe.org