Every good writer needs an editor. Composer/accompanist Derek Childs certainly needs one for his rock musical Tired American Dream, which debuted at the Harrison Hilltop Theatre last week. The opening-night performance, which lasted two hours with an intermission, had a few talented singers to boost Dream's simple plot, Childs' script has potential, and some of the songs have peppy melodies with sweet and memorable (if word-heavy) lyrics. But as a complete production, Dream felt too much like an early draft in need of revisions.
The story revolves around a recent college graduate, Dylan (Jason Platt), who has plans to leave Iowa and make it as a musician in New York City. When he meets 18-year-old Kennedy (Cari Downing) at a party, he falls for her, and the two quickly progress through the puppy-love stage into marriage, the working world, and eventual hardships. We've all heard or seen similar relationship stories before, and unfortunately, there's not enough character development or specific conflicts here to lift Dream out of what feels like a vague stupor.
While the character of Dylan has the well-defined dream of becoming a successful musician - and is probably the show's most autobiographical character, judging from Childs' notes in the program - the other six figures remain ambiguous. Professor Newman (Nathan Lane sound-alike Kevin Grastorf), for example, appears in the opening scenes, but we don't even find out what course he teaches or why he was such a great mentor for Dylan. (A first-act tragedy involving the professor draws little sympathy or reaction from the audience, because we simply didn't know anything about him.) Kennedy, meanwhile, exists only as the pretty young wife who waits like a quivering terrier by the door when her husband returns from work every night, and while she encourages Dylan's musical talents, she has no apparent ambitions of her own. The same goes for the other four characters, three of whom lament at length about their drunken infidelities, and eventually confess their unrequited love for each other. Blech. (If I wanted to waste my time hearing about a love triangle between intoxicated college friends, I'd visit the Augie or Ambrose dorms.)
It's unfortunate that such vocal talent was wasted on the vacuous characters of Peddy (Reader employee Chris Walljasper) and Emily (Sara Elizabeth King). These two actors seemed to be miscast as the foil couple; they should have been the leads. And other actors, I felt, shouldn't have been cast at all, namely Platt and David Turley (as best friend T.J.), who both had difficultly hitting many of their notes. These vocal glitches made it challenging for me to take this production seriously.
From a staging perspective, director Tristan Tapscott utilized the three main levels of the space well, and even incorporated one of the overlooking windows as a pleasant, visual distraction during the second-act song performed by the production's three females. But I question the set design of painted skyscrapers: such massive towers would've made sense if Dream had propelled its characters to NYC, but they didn't work as a backdrop for the unnamed Iowa town with a grain elevator.
As an idea in development, Dream has promise. And there's no doubt Childs has the musical talent to make positive changes in the way of paring down some of his songs so actors aren't stumbling over so many words. I saw the way he looked up - so proudly - from the piano bench, and as a writer, I felt for him, as I know how hard it is to turn a great idea in your mind into a good or even passable one on paper. If Childs can define clearer intentions for his characters and a more specific direction for his plot, his Dream can become more than a hazy outline. But for now, no one should have to pay $10 to see it.
For tickets and information, call (563)449-6371 or visit HarrisonHilltop.com.