On opening night of the new musical A Walk on the Moon (at A.C.T. through July 1), someone three seats away was audibly sobbing during the second act. So too was someone behind her, along with the woman seated directly to my left. And, at the curtain call, my neighbor was on her feet clapping with the kind of enthusiasm that theater producers dream of eliciting from their audiences. How then could a production with over a dozen forgettable songs arouse so much emotion from the women I heard crying? One answer may be that the producers gambled on the need for nostalgia during our current era of endlessly disturbing news cycles. From the sound of things where I was sitting, they have won that bet.
A Walk on the Moon is based on the Diane Lane/Viggo Mortensen romantic movie of the same name. The book is by Pamela Gray, who has adapted her own screenplay with a reverence normally conferred upon ancient religious texts. It’s a variation on the same theme as The Bridges of Madison County, or really any other movie in which Diane Lane is the star. Set during the summer of 1969, Pearl (Katie Brayben), her husband Marty (Jonah Platt) and their two children get out of Flatbush for the summer to settle into an upstate New York resort for Jewish families. The great dramatic convenience, and contrivance, of the story is that the resort is within hitchhiking distance of Woodstock, a concert that’s become an overwrought symbol of sexual liberation and personal freedom.
Marty spends his weekdays back in the city as a television repairman. Demand is high, because Neil Armstrong is about to become the first person to walk on the moon. Sometimes Marty doesn’t make it back on the weekends. While he’s away, Pearl meets Walker (Zak Resnick), a traveling blouse salesman who, though his job title suggests otherwise, is not gay. In fact, he’s a long-haired hippie who charms and is charmed by Pearl. After they meet, Pearl sings “Ground Beneath My Feet.” One day after seeing A Walk on the Moon, I couldn’t tell you how the melody goes or any other lyric besides the title.
The smartest narrative device Gray comes up with is to have Pearl talk to Neil Armstrong as if he’s her father, a therapist or God. It provides her with a reasonable transition from speaking to singing. That’s rarely the case for the other characters whose transitions into song are often abrupt or unsurprising. It also makes no difference that they are singing because the lyrics are so pedestrian. They aren’t lyrics per se so much as dialogue set to music — and those two different things aren’t comparable.
The disappointing score by Paul Scott Goodman settles down into a no man’s land somewhere between soft rock, pop and muzak. Pearl and Marty’s 13-year-old daughter Alison, Brigid O’Brien in a thankless role as a sulking, back-talking brat, talks about her favorite recording artists with her summer crush Ross (Nick Sacks, who does well playing a wide-eyed teenager). They mention Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Bob Dylan. Sadly, the composer wastes the opportunity to reference the musical influence of those artists. Perhaps he didn’t want the work to seem derivative. So instead he took his inspiration from Bryan Adams’ hit single from 1984, “Summer of ’69.” When the cast sang as an ensemble, the guitar work forced them into uncomfortable key changes that often went flat.
As the melancholy Pearl who’s contemplating her lost youth, Katie Brayben’s performance held the show together. Her acting skills were equal to her expressive voice. She was relaxed and genuine, conveying Pearl’s confusion, lust and guilt. The part of Walker though is so underwritten that Resnick has almost nothing to do except stand around and be admired. He looks great in bell bottoms but why exactly does she fall for him? This unanswered question creates an imbalance in their romance.
Pearl desires Walker not because of who he is, his distinctive personality traits, but because the script tells her to desire him. When they do get together, Resnick rubs his hands down Brayben’s breasts and she mounts him (while clothed). This explicit detour feels awkward and unnecessary in what is, with the exception of some cuss words, a G-rated affair. The songs should be doing that kind of work for us and they don’t. Surely Cole Porter didn’t exhaust the art of sexual innuendo when he wrote “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” in 1928.
The other factor that may have contributed to the epidemic of tears is the depiction of a difficult mother-daughter relationship during a major cultural shift. Women who were teenagers or mothers in 1969 made up at least 75 percent of the opening night’s audience (alongside their girlfriends, husbands or partners). A Walk on the Moon brought about a cathartic response in those who saw themselves in either role. They saw one young woman wanting something more than being a mother and a wife. And they saw a daughter growing up in a more hopeful time when changing the world for the better seemed within reach. Now it feels as distant as the moon.
A Walk on the Moon, Through July 1, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St. $15-$110; 415-749-2228 or act-sf.org