Though the Grateful Dead’s infectiously joyous music spanned the 1960’s to the 1990’s, playwright Michael Norman Mann’s variable book is incongruously set in the late 1920’s moonshine country of Cumberland, Maryland and is more Hee Haw than Carousel.
Years earlier, the amiable widower and roguish conman Jackson Jones won the dilapidated Palace Saloon and Boarding House in a poker game. He runs it with the help of his loving, long-time girlfriend Miss Glendine, his feisty daughter Melinda and his rebellious, ne’er-do-well son Mick. Jack has two weeks to come up with back taxes or he’ll lose everything. The villainous McElroy brothers whose father was the original owner of The Palace are causing mischief as well. After a lot of complications, everything is wrapped up by a climactic poker game.
The scenario is quite familiar and flatly rendered without much excitement. That is provided by the bright cast of eight performers who are also the show’s superb musicians. They’re clad in costume designer Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s rustic and colorful creations.
With sunny down-home charm, Scott Wakefield is outstanding as Jack. Mr. Wakefield’s sly humor, warmth and country and western persona are a major delight of the show. In the second act he’s a ghost and wears a fabulous Day of the Dead-style skeleton suit.
The charismatic and longhaired Michael Viruet brings a boyish rock star sensibility to the role of Mick. Mr. Viruet sings, plays guitar and jumps and runs into the audience with MTV-style flair.
Long, lean and possessing a glorious smile, the animatedly youthful Brian Russell Carey stands out as one of the McElroy brothers. Mr. Carey’s appealing performance is magnified by his wearing the most magnetically striped pair of skinny jeans. Scraggly bearded Michael McCoy Reilly is forcefully comic as his conniving sibling with his marvelous twang.
Natalie Storrs is a delightfully sassy Melinda. Debbie Christine Tjong as Mick’s love interest Bertha Marie, has a vibrant musical theater presence that would enliven the classic sidekick parts found in Damn Yankees, West Side Story and Sweet Charity.
Airily twirling around while wearing a black top hat and a macramé skirt, the leggy and alluring Maggie Hollinbeck looks and sounds like she could be part of a Grateful Dead tribute band. David Park pleasantly plays Liam, a young lawyer who has a romance with Melinda.
The rousing opening number where everyone is introduced is a thrilling highlight of director and choreographer Rachel Klein’s accomplished musical sequences that keep the pace up. Saddled with a wan book, Ms. Klein ably stages the spoken portions. Fight director Rod Kinter injects energy with his precise barroom clashes.
The stage’s height is emphasized by Robert Andrew Kovach’s striking scenic design. Wooden beams, platforms, Gunsmoke-style furniture, animal heads, barrels, a pot belly stove with a long pipe and hanging signs designating the locales, all visually combine to create an authentic atmosphere.
Jamie Roderick’s lighting design perfectly conveys the time, period and actions with its varying brightness and smoky dimness. The blaring sound design by Kim Carbone and Ben Scheff is perhaps more appropriate for a rock concert than a theater piece. Brad Peterson’s sparing projection design is neatly evocative.
The score is comprised of Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter’s Grateful Dead music and lyrics with additional music and lyrics by Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir, and Bill Kreutzmann. It’s all an engaging patchwork well-realized by Jeff Chimenti’s polished musical supervision and arrangements.
Though it’s wonderful experiencing such spirited renditions of Grateful Dead classics such as “Truckin,” “Casey Jones,” “Alabama Getaway” and “A Touch of Grey” by the talented ensemble, Red Roses, Green Gold doesn’t really cohere into a satisfying work of musical theater.
Red Roses, Green Gold (extended through February 18, 2018)
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.redrosesgreengold.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission