• by Jim Gladstone
  • Wednesday June 20, 2018
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In the American Conservatory Theater's guileless, bighearted new musical "A Walk on the Moon," at the Geary Theater through July 1, there are sweet, small elements that achieve liftoff. But they can't compensate for larger ones that crater.

The action is set in the summer of 1969. The country is in upheaval. As the show opens, images of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King and John Lennon are projected onto the stage. Americans are anxiously awaiting the Apollo 11 landing (the show's guiding metaphor). Everything is about to change.

Within this fraught era, "Moon" focuses on the Kantrowitz family: Father Marty (Jonah Platt) works Mondays through Fridays in a Brooklyn television repair shop. On the weekends he joins his wife Pearl (Katie Brayben), small son Danny (Elijah Cooper), rebellious teenage daughter Alison (Brigid O'Brien) and his widowed mother (Kerry O'Malley) at a rustic upstate bungalow camp, a common summer situation for lower-middle-class Jewish New Yorkers of the time.

Based on a critically acclaimed 1999 independent film of the same title, "Moon" is far more faithful to its source material than Pearl is to Marty. One of the two central plot threads is Pearl's sexual and romantic affair with Walker (Zak Resnick), an earthy salesman who regularly pulls into camp with his caravan full of women's blouses.

Pearl yearns for a bigger, broader sense of identity than Housewife/Mother, which is how she's been perceived by herself and others since becoming pregnant with Alison at 16. Walker, planning a cross-country trip to resettle in San Francisco after a last East Coast bash at the Woodstock concert, is close to Pearl's age, but he's footloose and free of commitments.

She falls hard for his sexy hippie vibe. In Walker's alternative lifestyle, Pearl catches a whiff of her alternate life, patchouli and copious pheromones. The pair's duets include an abundance of awkwardly choreographed dry-humping. Brayben won an Olivier playing Carole King in the West End production of "Beautiful," and her powerful, emotionally nuanced singing is one of "Moon"'s strongest assets.

Composer Paul Goodman cushions Brayben's multifaceted voice in jewelbox arrangements full of swooning cello and sparkling violin lines. His melodies, combined with her masterful tone and inflection, carry the solo numbers "Out of this World" and "Ground Beneath My Feet," and help transcend lyrics that are often prosaic and rhyme-heavy ("He kicked my heart,/I fell apart"), co-written by Goodman and Gray.

As Walker, Resnick's shoulder-length, straw-colored hair, six-foot-plus height, and lanky, sometimes bare torso are lovely to look at. But the way he plays his crunchy granola character is so laid-back it's almost recessive. We can't feel the animal charisma that Pearl and her fellow campground ladies are so thrown by. There's also a problematic recessiveness to Resnick's singing. He tends to swallow the ends of phrases. The vocal bar set by Brayben is very high, which makes their pairing all the more awkward.

"Moon"'s secondary storyline focuses on Pearl's strained relationship with adolescent Alison. Daughter finds mother square. Mother is unconsciously envious of the new possibilities open to women of a younger generation.

As Alison, Brigid O'Brien is a standout. Her phenomenal, brass-tinged voice makes her believable as Brayben's offspring. She also gets the script's best zingers, delivered with plenty of rebellious teen spirit as she complains about her parents' complacence toward the War. In one amusing exchange, she refuses to share cowboy-hatted little brother's room so long as his cap guns are present.

She's also the only member of the cast who maintains a credible Noo Yawk accent from start to finish. The notion that most of "Moon"'s characters are mid-century Brooklyn Jews requires suspension of disbelief to a "Harry Potter" degree.

Curly mopped Nick Sacks plays Ross, Alison's 16-year-old romantic interest with a big voice and magnetic presence that make him a fine match for O'Brien. He's a nice Jewish boy who improvises folk songs that capture the burgeoning of both political awareness and hormone levels with Dick Nixon jokes.

Visually, the production is beautiful, with bucolic Catskills sets by Donyale Werle, period-perfect 1960s costumes by Linda Cho, and nuanced lighting design by Robert Wierzel. And there's the exquisite coordination of director Sheryl Kaller's blocking and Tal Yarden's video projections. The show's most sumptuous scenes feature four translucent layers of visual interplay, with some cast members positioned in front of the forward scrim, others sandwiched between two scrims, and powerful projections running on both.

But from its opening juxtaposition of quaint woodland cabins and riotous national tumult, "Moon" throws down its own gauntlet, inviting audiences to wonder how the era's broad social changes will manifest amidst the Kantrowitzes. The answer to how? is superficially.

By story's end, what seemed like an imminent nuclear family meltdown has been averted, with Pearl resolving that a momwife life is right for her. Alison's opening provocations about fighting the man fade away into Teenbeat romance. And throughout this woman-centered show, even as lip-service is paid to most touchstone 60s social issues, feminism itself is oddly bypassed. Even Pearl's escapist fantasies are about coupling up with a different sort of man, not any personal ambitions. Projected up on those scrims, the cultural issues of the 60s remain largely untouched. They are gauzy, evanescent, and as far away as the moon.

Geary Theater, through July 1.