Nearly 60 years ago, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist was adapted into the blockbuster musical Oliver! 40 years later, a motion picture titled August Rush was released. Though it wasn’t directly promoted as an adaptation of Oliver Twist, it shares enough DNA with that novel that it’s apparent to anyone familiar with the tale of the innocent orphan ensnared in a life of crime. August Rush came out the same year as Once, a scrappy tale about a nameless duo making music and love; at the 2007 Oscars, August Rush lost the Best Song Award to Once’s iconic “Falling Slowly.”
If this all seems like a tangle, it’s a fitting one that I believe illustrates the well-intentioned, music-loving but muddled musical adaptation of August Rush. Making its debut at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora and taking a cue from the musical adaptation of Once by featuring its orchestra onstage and asking its lead characters to be triple threats, playing, singing, and acting, August Rush’s strength lies in its music. Mark Mancina wrote the film’s score and the musical’s music and lyrics, and the play speaks most clearly and compellingly when it talks of “the circle of fifths” and the symphony within. The passion, technical proficiency, and magic of music are never in doubt; the cohesiveness of the storytelling, on the other hand, is another matter.
The lighting design by Paul Toben gives the audience early, eerie, effective indications that all is not well with Wizard as he entreats Evan to “Give It Up,” a song that seems to be about the liberating power of living music but is more the clarion call of a cult leader who forces his “collective” into a relentless life of street performance so he can profit for himself. Wizard, as well as cellist Lyla’s father, is played by John Hickok, and at first glance, the dual casting makes sense, as both male figures are manipulative, malignant forces. However, a pair of sunglasses does not a clean character transition make, and as a costuming cue, it seemed a particularly corny choice that undercuts the impact of both the thematic implications and the efforts Hickok makes to show his range as an actor.
There are other good ideas in the mix–the marvelous backdrops by Scott Pask and Joe Burke that shift between cityscape and sheet music, the costume design by Ann Hould-Ward that maintains the sheet music theme in sharp black and white with pops of red to symbolize passion and love (though George Abud’s red handkerchief, paired as it is with a jean jacket and carefully cultivated stubble is distractingly reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen)–but they’re no match for the lack of clarity in the book (by co-lyricist Glen Berger) that causes large portions of the story to head in odd, abstract directions that would seem intentional were they more trippy or allegorical. The use of the piano as a setpiece, in contrast, gums up the momentum of the show’s efforts to show the dizzyingly quick journey of Lewis and Lyla from romance to pregnancy to birth. Not every musical analogy was meant to be.
The performances are all solid enough given the flimsy nature of the script between the songs– young Huxley Westemeier is especially winning as Evan (renamed August Rush by Wizard)–and the audience Sunday afternoon seemed won over by him and the hard work of the performers, along with the excitement of having the opportunity to see a world premiere. But I have to admit to seeing this staging as the first draft of a song. I hope it finds its rhythm in a later iteration.
August Rush performances run through June 2. For tickets, visit ParamountAurora.com, call (630) 896-6666, or visit the Paramount box office in Aurora.