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The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 from New Light Theater Project
Photo by Hunger Canning

Theater Review (NYC): ‘The Greatest Hits Down Route 66’ by Michael Aguirre

Route 66 Revisited

A family roadtrip exposes the complexities and contradictions of American identity in Michael Aguirre’s The Greatest Hits Down Route 66. This polished play with music combines the playwright’s own experience with folk songs from Carl Sandburg’s early-20th-century collection The American Songbag. It takes us on a journey along the storied old Route 66 – or what’s left of it – into the burnished lore, and the secret history, of what one might guardedly call a prototypical American family.

The year is 1999. The country isn’t as politically divided as it is today, but the difference is one of degree. Right-wingers feel besieged, youth disaffected. Gruff family man Wolf Man (Kristoffer Cusick) insists on following his carefully timed road-trip itinerary, despite knowing it will delay the family’s arrival at what may be the deathbed of his own elderly father. Ironically, the road-trip plan includes brushes with the 1940s journey of Wolf Man’s Mexican-immigrant father into a not-very-welcoming United States.

Wolf Man has semi-deified his father, but we learn how the old man had taken out his frustrations by abusing himself through drink and his family through violence. Wolf Man sees his evocations of family history and American exceptionalism challenged on several fronts: with meek irony by his tightly wound wife, Mother Dearest (an expressive Erika Rolfsrud); with liberal fervor by his 17-year-old son, The Eldest (Martin Ortiz); and with snappy asides by the Narrator (Joél Acosta), who both situates us and interjects correctives to Wolf Man’s sugarcoated stories and recollections. All the while, peppy younger son Wee One (a winning Kleo Mitrokostas) fulfills the role of questioner and blank slate.

The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 from New Light Theater Project
Photo by Hunter Canning

Landmarks like Lincoln’s Tomb and the St. Louis Arch alternate with grubby corners of Americana (a gas station, a Carl’s Jr.) as the family argues, banters, and sings their way from their Chicago suburb toward the Texas home of Wolf Man’s more successful brother (Acosta). The brother has shouldered the entire burden of caring for their ailing father, and this uncovers even more of the insecurity Wolf Man tries to hide with bluster. There isn’t a lot of subtlety in the script – instead, it writes things large, Much like, one might say, America itself.

Music, Music, Music

Production-wise, more important than the locations is the (almost) consistent musicality and pacing of the action. A live band backs up the soulful singing of fluid-voiced Hannah-Kathryn “HK” Wall – often joined by family members (and occasionally the audience) – in arrangements, sometimes sprightly, sometimes sentimental, often beautiful, of folk songs from Sandburg’s collection. Many are familiar, like “The Midnight Special,” “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” “Blow the Man Down,” and “Sloop John B” (my own favorite).

The music seeps into the whole production, which sustains a musical rhythm even between songs. In that way The Greatest Hits Down Route 66, awkward title and all, seems crafted to be a Broadway contender. Sarah Norris’s high-energy direction and the spirited, assured performances indeed suggest the energy of a bigger stage.

Autobiographically speaking, the play has scenes where one may feel the playwright wasn’t selective enough, making much of incidents that lie perhaps outside the play’s thematic ambit. But the buzzing energy, the humor, and the music almost never flag. Part Our Town, part Big River, the show tells a slice of the American story. It reckons with the national mythology, acknowledges America’s prejudices and inequities, and creates hope and warm feeling through the sheer power of song.

New Light Theater Project’s The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 is at 59E59 Theaters Off Broadway through Feb. 18.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to our Music section, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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