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The Greatest Hits Down Route 66

A family road trip during the summer of 1999 with folk songs taken from Carl Sandburg's "The American Songbag."

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Erika Rolfsrud and Kristoffer Cusick (front row) and Kleo Mitrokostas and  Martin Ortiz (back row) in a scene from Michael Aguirre’s “The Greatest Hits Down Route 66” at 59E59 Theaters (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

The title of Michael Aguirre’s The Greatest Hits Down Route 66, the story of the Franco family’s road trip during the summer of 1999, refers to Carl Sandburg’s 1927 The American Songbag, a best-selling collection of early folksongs. Aguirre tells us that “the goal is to use music as a memory, an imprint, incidental. It should carry emotional weight but don’t depend on it to move the plot forward.” And that is the problem with the show: the songs are extraneous to the plot and have little impact as most of the 13 songs used are so familiar, in the musical arrangements of Grace Yukich and Jennifer C. Dauphinais. There are no surprises in the music played by a three piece band and a lead vocalist, Hannah-Kathryn “HK” Wall. Occasionally, the narrator played by Joél Acosta joins in or sings a song himself.

The other problem with the show is that little is made of the details of Route 66, the famed road which travels from Chicago to Santa Monica, covering 2, 448 miles and going through St. Louis, Tulsa and Houston. Nicknamed the “Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath and also known as the “Main Street of America,” it is a fascinating route but you would never know it from this show. The family makes 117 stops but we join them on only 14, places like a gas station, a motel, the St. Louis Gateway Arch, and Lincoln’s Tomb. However there is no sense of the historic importance of the road or the more colorful details other than that the family has places to see.

Martin Ortiz, Hannah-Kathryn “HK” Wall, Andy Evan Cohen and Joél Acosta in a scene from Michael Aguirre’s “The Greatest Hits Down Route 66” at 59E59 Theaters (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

The second goal of the show is “to form an identity out of this family in the same way that Sandburg forms an American identity out of his collection.” Unfortunately as written the Franco family is both familiar and bland. The most unusual thing about them is their names: The father is known as Wolf Man, a nickname that is not explained until almost the end of the show. The others are Mother Dearest (no irony intended); The Eldest, son of 17 who is a junior in high school and his parents want him to start looking at colleges; and Wee One, a boy of indeterminate aged play by a female. At the end we find out the men’s names are John, Luke and Michael, good Bible names.

Eventually we discover that the goal of the trip is to visit Wolf Man’s elderly and gravely ill father in Texas, living near his brother Tim. Wolf Man has not visited him in nine years and has bad memories of the abusive Miguel who was both a bad father and husband. However, it is Miguel who introduced Wolf Man to Sandburg’s American Songbag which he played on a home organ. The songs are mainly sung by Wall with Acosta often joining in a duet, with the band sometimes being included. Occasionally, the family joins in or sings a song a cappella.

Erika Rolfsrud, Kristoffer Cusick, Joél Acosta and Martin Ortiz in a scene from Michael Aguirre’s “The Greatest Hits Down Route 66” at 59E59 Theaters (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

On the way they discuss identity: Wolf Man’s father is Mexican which makes him and the children partly Hispanic, the mother being Polish. While The Eldest and Wee One have questions about their heritage they don’t get straight answers but they do get Wolf Man’s anecdotes of his youth. The Eldest is cynical and judgmental in of the way modern teenagers and criticizes his father’s politics and lack of social awareness. He brings up racial inequities that he has learned about in school, not only in society but in some of the songs in Sandburg’s choices for The American Songbag.

None of the dialogue is particularly interesting or unusual, more on the level of bickering. Except for the fact of their rarely discussed Mexican heritage, they are a very ordinary family. The mother smokes, the father won’t turn around when he misses a turning on the road, the high school-aged son wants to go into the Peace Corps, and the youngest one cries a lot. Other than this, we do not learn anything about them. This gives the actors little to work with to develop their characters.

Erika Rolfsrud, Kleo Mitrokostas, Martin Ortiz and Kristoffer Cusick  in a scene from Michael Aguirre’s “The Greatest Hits Down Route 66” at 59E59 Theaters (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

Directed by Sarah Norris, the show moves swiftly along and is professionally staged. However, she cannot overcome the production’s deficiencies. As Wolf Man, Kristoffer Cusick neither looks Mexican nor exhibits any Hispanic characteristics. As this is such a great part of the story line, this is a visual and aural problem. In the role of The Eldest, Martin Ortiz is much more interesting as the judgmental and woke son but his carping eventually becomes tiresome. In underwritten roles, Erika Rolfsrud as Mother Dearest and Kleo Mitrokostas as Wee One make little impression as we learn almost nothing about them. Joél Acosta as the Narrator is more effective giving us both historic facts and corrections to Wolf Man’s narratives.

As lead vocalist, Hannah-Kathryn “HK” Wall has a lovely voice, though as often true of folk songs they mostly sound the same. The fine band is made up of Andy Evan Cohen on guitar, keys and others, who often backs up her vocals, Nick Gianni on bass, and Mary E. Rodriquez on drums and percussion. The minimalist setting by Anna Kiraly which makes use of chairs and boxes allows for a quick transition between scenes. Her projections are partly effective, partly distracting. The costumes by Kara Branch give the family a casual summer look while narrator Acosta seems to be dressed in cowboy gear which complements the folk songs. Kwamina “Binnie” Biney’s sound design is excellent both for the music and the dialogue.

Erika Rolfsrud, Kristoffer Cusick and Joél Acosta (front row); Kleo Mitrokostas, Martin Ortiz and Andy Evan Cohen (back row) in a scene from Michael Aguirre’s “The Greatest Hits Down Route 66” at 59E59 Theaters (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 is a pleasant musical but it promises more than it delivers. While promising family explosions and revelations, it remains low-key thoughout its 100 minute running time. Even the use of audience participation on one of the songs does not pull the viewers further into the story. It is an interesting attempt to wed Carl Sandburg’s The American Songbag to a modern musical about America at the end of the last century, but does not make a very strong case for the combination.

The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 (through February 18, 2024)

The New Light Theater Project

In association with Calliope Stage and NewYorkRep

59E59 Theaters

Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59E59.org

Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (958 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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