If this can't draw a youth audience, nothing can. To its credit, Anna Hamilton Phelan (book), Barry Mann (music) and Cynthia Weil's (lyrics) new musical doesn't pander to the sentimental “fatal disease of the week” syndrome that's built into its spine. After UCLA doctors tell 15-year-old Rocky (Allen E. Reed) and his biker, meth-addicted mom, Rusty (Michelle Duffy), that the craniodiaphyseal dysplasia that had been progressively contorting Rocky's face since he was an infant would lead to his demise within months, the diagnosis is mercifully ignored both by Rocky and the musical itself. (Rusty sings that if she kept digging a grave each time they said her boy would die, she could be eating chow mein in China by now.) The story's core, spun from Peter Bogdanovich's 1985 movie starring Cher and Eric Stoltz (Phelan was the screenwriter), focuses on the curiously and beautifully adept mothering skills of Rusty, and those of her biker tribe headed by barrel bellied Dozer (Michael Lanning). Young Rocky – remarkably well-balanced emotionally and an adept scholar – struggles to fit in to his new school, Azuza High, in the San Gabriel Vallley. (The real life Rusty and Rocky lived in Covina and Glendora. Rusty died two years ago in the aftermath of a motorcycle crash in an Azuza intersection. She had recently served a prison term for meth use. Unmentioned in this musical is that she had another son, Joshua, who died of AIDS at age 32.) Unlike in The Phantom of the Opera or in Wicked, here, the “mask” doesn't stand for much that's larger than itself, such as Phantom's face from the dead, or “wicked” witch Elphaba's defiance of the Wizard's cruelty and hypocrisy. This renders Mask a chamber musical about the tugs and pulls between a wounded mother and her inflicted son. As such, it suffers from straining to be epic, at moments tilting from a perfectly amiable and moving domestic musical, supported by Mann's pop ballads and Weil's often very witty lyrics, into the school-daze farce of High School Musical and then to the heroic and largely pointless gush of a rock opera. Under Richard Maltby, Jr.'s carefully modulated direction, this work-in-progress has many assets: Dozer's ode to biking “Close to Heaven” for instance, strikingly rendered by Lanning, and the intelligence of portraying the shifting parent-child roles of Rusty and Rocky. As Rusty, Duffy's performance and voice are both sublime, as is Robert Brill's revolving set that features a silhouette of the San Gabriel Mountains punctuated by industrial-scale power lines – talk about capturing a locale with a few symbols. Now this promising musical needs to do the same.
Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 7 p.m. Starts: March 21. Continues through April 20, 2008
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