By Nicole Itkin

The Franco family packs up their coolers and hits the road, heading on a road trip down Route 66. The passengers are less than thrilled about being in the car– which is unfortunate because they’ll be in the car for a while. The Franco family is driving from Chicago to Los Angeles, with songs from Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag accompanying them as they drive (…and drive… and drive some more).

In the car, there’s a strict seating chart: the father (Kristoffer Cusick) as “Wolf Man” behind the wheel, mother (Erika Rolfsrud)as “Mother Dearest” to his right. In the back, their two sons: (Martin Ortiz) as “The Eldest” and (Kleo Mitrokostas) as “Wee One.” Like their seating choices, the itinerary is set in stone by Wolf Man– there is no straying from the plan. That’s his view, on the trip and in life.

Similarly, there’s a strictness in the character types that the actors are forced into (as their character names suggest). The characters are stereotypical, following their roles, rules, lines closely. This serves to emphasize a point, probably, but takes away a lot of the fun of the family dynamic. In every scene, scene after scene, you know exactly how everyone’s going to behave. Wolf Man is strict, growling at anyone who wants something different. Mother Dearest is trying to make everyone happy. The Eldest is sharing his political views at every turn. Wee One runs around, wanting love and affection. This renders the show into a caricature. You start to wish that someone would change in some way at some point. But no, the point is just hammered home: this is who the characters are, this is how they’ll act, always.

We know how they’ll act when they’re bored and hungry. We know how they’ll act when they’re happy and comfortable. We know how they’ll act in the car. Noticeably, in a scene in a diner, they finally leave the car. And they fight. And they spill their food. And they have a confrontation outside (with The Eldest hovering next to a smoking Mother Dearest and Wee One guarding Wolf Man from leaving). In that moment, The Eldest so clearly feels so bad and has no way of communicating that, no way of fixing what he knows he’s broken. In that moment, I saw opportunity. And then we were back in the car.

What gives the performance life, however, is the music. Suddenly, when they start singing, I feel happy and hopeful. It’s an upbeat and nostalgic-seeming tint to a performance that otherwise never quite gets there. In my opinion, there’s a lot of well done songs, one after the other. A job well done.

And while the whole of the show fell a little flat in my eyes, there were some stellar performances. Rolfsrud got laughs with many of her lines, from her very first words to her parting lines. Mitrokostas played a convincing and genuine role that seemed to make the whole audience remember the young ones they’ve been around. There were definitely laughs, and some fun lines throughout.

This is a show about a family, about a family moving through and questioning their lives– together. With that, everything that’s stereotypical about the show also serves to make the inevitable disappointing. The show ends with a portrayal of the family falling apart, setting out on roads different from one another. And it’s a sad realization of the truth of life, and one that would have been so much more if we had actually gotten to know the characters as people, instead of their roles. When a role dies, it can be replaced. When a person does, they can’t be. I wish the show had looked at that a little more closely.

 

The Greatest Hits Down Route 66

With Joél Acosta (Narrator), Kristoffer Cusick (Wolf Man), Kleo Mitrokostas (Wee One), Martin Ortiz (The Eldest), and Erika Rolfsrud (Mother Dearest)

With Andy Evan Cohen (Guitar / Keyboard), Nick Gianni (Bass), Mary E. Rodriguez (Drums / Percussion), Hannah-Kathryn “HK” Wall (Lead Vocalist)

Presented by New Light Theater Project in association with Calliope Stage and NewYorkRep, The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 is written by Michael Aguirre, directed by Sarah Norris with musical arrangements by Grace Yukich and Jennifer C. Dauphinais

The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 will play at 59E59 until February 18, 2024