By Stanford Friedman
Red Roses Green Gold has all the beauty marks and all the scars of a jukebox musical. There are wonderful songs, in this case culled from the epic catalog of The Grateful Dead. The music is admirably performed, not by a tribute band, but by a diverse ensemble of eight actor/musicians (five men and three women) who bring their own interpretations to the material. There is a nifty set, a couple of rough and tumble dance pieces…and a storyline so poorly conceived and executed that it almost ruins the fun. Even if you don’t know the Dead from the Zombies, you will still find enough catchy rhythms to carry you through. On the other hand, if you’re a purest who would have trouble listening to “Touch of Grey” sung as a rousing chorus number, you might want to stay at home with your vinyl.
Generally ignoring the cultural and psychedelic legacy of the Dead in favor of their country rock influence, writer Michael Norman Mann sets his story in 1928 in a saloon/boarding house near a coal mine in a town called Cumberland, referencing the Dead’s “Cumberland Blues.” The joint is run by Jack Jones (Scott Wakefield) when he is not busy filling us in on the back story of the business and its family ties. Jack’s son Mick (Michael Viruet) is the black sheep who leaves town mostly so that he can sing “Truckin” and then comes back mostly so that he can lead a rousing version of “US Blues.” Other trouble-makers who are hanging around for the sake of it and speaking with hillbilly accents include Mick’s sister Melinda (Natalie Storrs), Mick’s would-be fiancée, Bertha (Debbie Christine Tjong), Jack’s would-be fiancée Glendine (Maggie Hollinbeck), Melinda’s would-be fiancé, Liam (David Park) and the no-good McElroy brothers (Brian Russell Carey and Michael McCoy Reilly). Suffice it to say that hijinks ensue, the McElroys spout unfortunate dialog in hopes of laughs and the climactic scene centers around a poker game staged with all the physicality of, well, a poker game.
Fortunately, these folks can sing and strum a mean streak. A violin, a banjo, a mandolin, a double bass, guitars, keyboards and percussion that includes a hi-hat disguised as a floor lamp, all get a workout. Viruet, sporting the wild hair of a young Jerry Garcia, is an explosive presence. Tjong has some serious pipes. Hollinbeck brings a sweet, soft elegance. Carey fiddles up a storm. Storrs and Park work well together, both in a rollicking pas de deux and later in a soft ballad duet of “Box of Rain.” This is a good thing for Mr. Park who, when not singing or dancing, looks utterly lost in the free flow staging of director/choreographer Rachel Klein.
After sitting dark for much of the year, it is nice to see the Minetta Lane Theatre hopping once again, despite its high-ceiling, echo chamber acoustics. Costumer Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s nods to the Dead include a skeleton costume and familiar top hats. And scenic designer Robert Andrew Kovach has turned the stage into a convincingly warm saloon. Ms. Klein has her cast bouncing all over it, as well as into the house. Just your typical theater involved in a typical daydream.
Red Roses Green Gold – Songs by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, Book by Michael Norman Mann; Directed and Choreographed by Rachel Klein.
WITH: Brian Russell Carey (Dudley), Maggie Hollinbeck (Glendine), David Park (Liam), Michael McCoy Reilly (Jessup), Natalie Storrs (Melinda), Debbie Christine Tjong (Bertha), Michael Viruet (Mick), and Scott Wakefield (Jack).
Musical Supervision & Arrangements by Jeff Chimenti, music direction and additional arrangements by Andy Peterson, scenic design by Robert Andrew Kovach, costume design by Ásta Bennie Hostetter, lighting design by Jamie Roderick, sound design by Kim Carbone and Ben Scheff. At the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, 800.745.3000, www.redrosesgreengold.com. Through January 7. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.