Mask was a successful 1985 movie about Rocky Dennis, a teenager with a disfiguring and degenerative bone disease, and his pill-poppin' momma Rusty, struggling to have a “normal“ family life despite the doctor’s prognosis of Rocky having only a few months to live. This tearjerker was a highly successful vehicle for Eric Stoltz, Laura Dern, and the inimitable Cher.
They say that truth is less believable than fiction. Despite the fact that the story was based on real people, it was not the easiest movie to sit through despite its stellar cast and uplifting message. Add music to the mix, and believability is stretched too far; nevertheless this new musical has some really positive aspects. The story is still mawkish but moving, the performances are terrific, and the music and the singers often soar.
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (You’ve Lost That Lovin' Feeling) have a catalogue of winning songs to their names, and the songs here are no exception. The bike anthem Close to Heaven, as sung by the husky-voiced Michael Lansing, celebrates the adventurous wonder of the open road and could be a Kenny Rogers hit. Another show-stopper is Rocky’s song Planet Volturn, especially as sung by Allen E. Read, whose voice is reason enough to see the show. The sweet duet between Rocky and his blind girlfriend (the lovely Sarah Glendening) is also hit-worthy.
Not all the songs are winners, but as sung by this terrific cast they are worth hearing. The problem is that several of the numbers are delivered down center, as in a concert, doing nothing to further the action and serving only to tell us more about the character. This can make the show drag, especially at its staggering two hour and 45 minute length.
The acting is also a mixed bag. While the principals are all quite good, the chorus is often, well, chorusy. The scenes in the classroom are quite obnoxious, and a scene with the doctor is gratuitous. Michele Duffy, so good in Can-Can earlier this year, impresses as the mother and has a great set of lungs. Greg Evigan has a nice easy style as Ricky’s on-again-off-again lover and can sing a country song with the best of them. Still it is Allen E. Read’s Rocky who steals our hearts with his natural performance and emotive singing voice.
The sets by Robert Brill evoke California's gorgeous sky, power lines, palm trees, and the San Gabriel Mountains. The costumes and lights are all good and the makeup by Michael Westmore (who also did the movie) is very effective for the stage and doesn’t seem to interfere with Rockie’s performance, though it did evoke unfortunate comparisons to Beauty and the Beast. Director Richard Maltby keeps everything moving, and the book by Anna Hamilton Phelan, who also wrote the movie, is well written and even has quite a few laughs.
If bikers are your bag and you can buy the idea that they have found the way to a free life full of warmth and camaraderie, then Mask may be for you. Go see the performances, hear the terrific singing, see a star-making performance by Allen E. Read, and be once again moved by the story of this courageous young man. At the Pasadena Playhouse through April 13.