Calling all Dead Heads! The classic songs of your favorite band have been reincarnated for the stage at Minetta Lane Theatre, in a new jukebox musical Red Roses, Green Gold, directed by Rachel Klein and presented by MWM Live. Inspired by the music and lyrics of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter (with additional material by band members Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir, and Bill Kreutzmann), the original book by Michael Norman Mann weaves a tale from the themes, places, and characters of their popular 1970 studio albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and more. But don’t just expect a look-alike sound-alike tribute concert here. Under the musical supervision of Jeff Chimenti (keyboardist for the Dead through most of the post-Garcia era) and music direction by Andy Peterson, the familiar songs that drive the plot have been reworked with new arrangements that capture the genuine folk spirit of old-time Americana, infused with the sounds of the psychedelic Sixties, contemporary rock, and a touch of Broadway, offering widespread appeal for both new audiences and longtime devotees [or should I say ‘Deadvotees’?] alike.
Set in the old mining town of Cumberland in the 1920s, the story follows the adventures, misadventures, and relationships of Jackson Jones and his son Mick (aka the “Doo-Dah Man” and the “Candyman”). Faced with foreclosure on their family-owned Palace Saloon and Hotel (which is always alive with music), threats from their evil adversaries the McElroy brothers (who want to regain control of the property), challenges from the strong-willed women in their lives (appropriately named Melinda and Bertha, and Miss Glendine), and an emergency in the mine (during a party on the 4th of July), the protagonists steal, swindle, and gamble their way through song and dance, fights, feuds, and card games, corny country humor, unexpected twists, and a surprise ending that leaves everyone with more than a “Touch of Grey.”
Fans will recognize the names and situations from “Brokedown Palace,” “Cumberland Blues,” “Bertha,” “Candyman,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Alabama Getaway,” “New Speedway Boogie,” “Playin’ in the Band,” “The Wheel,” “Ripple,” and other beloved Dead standards, performed within the narrative structure by a multi-talented ensemble of actors/singers/musicians/dancers. All eight play an astonishing array of electric and acoustic instruments, bring full-out emotion to the songs, and deliver spot-on harmonies (their rousing full-cast rendition of “Truckin’” is one of the many showstoppers that will keep you singing for days after you’ve left the theater).
Klein keeps the story flowing and the characters moving with high-energy direction and choreography that make use of the full stage, its different levels of platforms, stairs, and bar top, and the theater aisles, for everything from a surreptitious getaway to country-hoedown stepping to a fast-paced jitterbug, in performances that evoke not only the Dead, but Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, Chuck Berry, and Elvis (oh, right, the dead). Scott Wakefield is Jack, who narrates his story, oversees the proceedings, and plays his cards close to the chest, with a down-home western twang and outstanding vocals and musicianship that perfectly suit the style of the show and score. Michael Viruet brings the attitude of a conman and the swagger of a rock star to Mick, as he deserts his family and fiancée, sneaks his way out through the audience, bares his well-toned chest, and rocks out to his solos. Michael McCoy Reilly is convincingly brutish and sinister as Jessup McElroy (he also nails the dialect) and Brian Russell Carey adds a doltish touch as his brother Dudley, who can’t quite keep things straight. Maggie Hollinbeck is gentle and supportive as Glendine, Jack’s girlfriend of 20 years who is still reluctant to marry or to say “I love you,” in contrast with Debbie Christine Tjong as Bertha, Mick’s tough-talking intended, who has a spirited reaction to being told by him not to “come around here anymore” (fight choreography by Rod Kinter). Rounding out the cast are Natalie Storrs as Jack’s daughter Melinda, who is left to make important decisions about the Palace and her future, and David Park as Liam, Jack’s steadfast lawyer and the object of Melinda’s budding affection.
The show’s artistic design is marked by impressively high production values. As with the musical arrangements and choreography, Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes synthesize the styles of different periods and sub-cultures, with a hillbilly hat for Melinda, flowing hippie robes for Glendine, country-western duds for Jack, and unabashed rock-god attire for Mick. An authentically rustic and sturdy wooden set by Robert Andrew Kovach efficiently transitions from the Palace to the mine to the local movie theater and the Marshall Lodge with the easy repositioning of the movable steps, piano, and bar. Striking projections by Brad Peterson astutely reference imagery from the Dead’s lyrics and cover art, lighting by Jamie Roderick effectively sets the dramatic mood for the story and creates a colorful rock-concert ambience for the songs, and Kim Carbone and Ben Scheff provide a clear and balanced sound design, following the installation of a new sound system to correct problems encountered during previews.
Red Roses, Green Gold is an entertaining reimagining of the nostalgic and transportive music of the Grateful Dead, in a new theatrical context and style. But if you can’t keep yourself from moving to the songs, theater-goers are invited (and encouraged) to “stand up and boogie down” in specially designated sections, where, at any point during the performance, you can get up from your seat, sing along, and dance “like you’re used to.”
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.