The Great Unknown, having nothing to do with Donald Rumsfeld’s foreign policy tenets, is a sweetly earnest history-musical reminiscent of Big River or Shenandoah. With a book by William Hauptman, who incidentally won a Tony for Big River, and music by Jim Wann, who originated the role of Jim in the Tony-nominated Pump Boys and Dinettes, The Great Unknown evokes the nostalgic days of what the American musical was like during those days of the pump boys and the dinettes.
Much like Big River‘s trip down the Mississippi, The Great Unknown takes a river journey, this time down the Colorado, led by John Wesley Powell, the first modern American geologist and explorer of the Grand Canyon. Tom Hewitt is the distinguished Major Powell, and although there are moments when Mr. Hewitt is over-mic’ed as was most of the cast in the small Theatre at St. Clements performance space, even without a mike, Mr. Hewitt would have the gravitas to be a convincing natural leader.
From left: Edmund Bagnell, Tom Hewitt, Dan Amboyer
In this lesser-known narrative in American history, Major Powell was anointed as the first Secretary of the Interior by President Grant upon Powell’s successful trip down the Colorado River and the subsequent exploration of the Grand Canyon. Powell’s motivation for the trek, according to The Great Unknown‘s creative team, was to heal a broken country after the Civil War. Some modern Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms hover over the story as well –Powell needs to heal himself along with the country.
Powell lost an arm in the war between the states, and there is a continuing theme in the story of compensating for the loss of command over his Union troops. The makeshift company Powell builds for his journey becomes a de facto military unit, even though the explorers are representative of the warring factions from Powell’s past – the rebel Missouri Rhodes (the perfectly cast Thomas Wesley Stewart) and freed slave Somers (Bobby Dare).
There are also familial reasons for “running away” down the river. Powell had a difficult brother, Walter, who also needed healing from his war: Walter suffers from “invisible wounds” from his Andersonville imprisonment. As Walter, Dan Amboyer has a resonant voice and his character was one of the most fully-sketched of the evening; but, as with many of the allusions in the story of the Powell expedition, the horrors of Andersonville are not fully conveyed. The Colorado River may have been explored, but Walter’s emotional burdens are not.
Powell’s wife, Emma, assertively played by the charming Kristin Maloney, may deserve a musical of her own. Within the story, Emma is Powell’s distant guiding star, but the reality is, or at least reality according to PBS, Emma Powell accompanied her husband on many of his expeditions.
The Great Unknown’s music is stronger than its book with lines like “I think he (Powell) might be a great man” or “Who says that God doesn’t have a sense of humor.” The music is conventional, the strongest number being the opener “Take Me Down the River.” Other numbers such as “Natural Man,” about the need for soap, are begging for an edit. “Memory Hill” – the showstopper sung by Bobby Dare – might have served better at the top of the evening to establish this lightly sketched character better.
Directed by Don Stephenson, The Great Unknown is worthwhile testimony and a poignant metaphor for a larger story of life no matter what historical period, but the Grand Canyon is the Grand Canyon. You can’t get away from the need for landscape in this narrative, and that is a very hard thing to bring to life on stage. As many times as the characters can tell us that they are overawed by the walls of the Grand Canyon, we have to take their word for it. Perhaps a multi-media approach could help The Great Unknown emerge from its dated feeling. With dancing women with voluminous white petticoats as the Colorado rapids, the choreography brings energy, but not enough to lift the production out of some of its silliness. The show advertises itself as “A New American Musical,” but with Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson deconstructing the heroic portrait down the street, The Great Unknown doesn’t seem new at all.
The Great Unknown, part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, closed October 16. An illustrious feature on the New York City theatre front, this year’s NYMF featured 30 productions. One of its alums, Next to Normal, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama this year. NYMF runs through October 17th.
Additional cast: Edmund Bagnell (Oramel Howland), Steven Beckingham (Bill Dunn), Kelli Gautreau (Rachel), Colin Campbell McAdoo (Jacob Hamblin), Joanna Parson (Mother Sara), Celia Mei Rubin (Vashti), Eli Zoller (Risdon Adams).
Photographs by Matthew Murphy