Those of us of a certain age still sigh when we remember going to the Belle Star out in Colden. Or Central Park Grill. Or the original Tralf on Main Street. These were places where live music was king, but it was the atmosphere, the company, the whole gestalt of it all that made it more than just a destination with a great sound. That’s the essence of Hank’s, the dive bar with live music in “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” on stage at Road Less Traveled Productions.
. . . ends RLTP’s season on a high note. . .
Dyan Burlingame’s set pulls you in before playwright Laura Eason’s endearing story begins. Hank’s has a warm, rundown vibe of a place packed with memories, with just a dash of stale beer. Lots of framed prints on the walls, a Teddy Bear over the bar signed by The Clash’s Mick Jones, a string of twinkle lights above the bar surrounded by a collection of mismatched stools. Only one thing was missing, noticed one keen observer: there should have been a few holes in the wall around the dartboard. But it’s all perfect. It creates a sense of place, a feeling, something meant to linger and stay with all whom cross the threshold.
Eason’s story is a little bit Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” meets “You’ve Got Mail.” Hank’s is a 25 year institution in 1992-era Chicago. It’s the place indie bands play on their way from the garage to the big time. Hank has the ear for it, too. Music is his life and this dive bar he built is his world. That world’s about to be rocked by the by DJs who liked to mix it up at the turntables and keep a vacant warehouse full of 20-somethings dancing all night. This is a track Hank isn’t willing to play in his place. “Too produced, processed, and soul-less,” he grumbles. The neighborhood is poised to change, too, as the next generation landlord is selling off old properties for new uses. Yup, sometimes even the best tunes resolve to a minor key.
Director David Oliver’s well-chosen cast give life to Eason’s story. Hank (perfectly portrayed by Peter Palmisano) is irascible, funny, and philosophical, too. His monologue about music (“it’s some kind of magic,” he says) is both wistful and powerful. Christine Turturro (a graduating college senior in Niagara University’s legendary theatre program) is Hank’s daughter Lena. She was raised to love live music just like her dad, but her peers are the ones dancing in the warehouse. Turturro is a fine actor and picks a mean guitar, too. I loved the scenes when Hank and Lena grab their guitars and just pick and talk, thinking through their fingers. Listen closely to these small moments: your ear will catch some familiar riffs, a little Hendrix, some early Beatles. In my head, I finished the line of the Beatles tune, “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead…” Like Hank says, it’s magic.
Jeff Coyle as Toby, Hank’s bar manager, Diane DiBernardo as Bette his ex-wife who is still drawn to the man and the place that has her heart, Johnny Barden as Nash, Lena’s beau with ulterior motives, and Nick Stevens as Joey, the son of the landlord with little respect for a handshake and tradition round out the cast well. Coyle and Stevens are fresh from MusicalFare’s last iteration of “Million Dollar Quartet” at Shea’s 710 Theatre as Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley respectively. It’s Palmisano and Turturro who have the real chemistry here: their father-daughter dynamic is both fierce and sweet.
On the production side, John Rickus has some fun lighting key scenes, when the adjoining warehouse is packed with a couple thousand writhing dancers. He creates visual depth looking into a briefly opened door that’s stunning. Katie Menke’s sound design includes some fine tunes in scene changes. I couldn’t help myself: I started singing along with Janis Joplin at one point, and noticed the audience member next to me joined in. That’s another thing music does: it creates community.
“The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” ends RLTP’s season on a high note, but like a great music set, I want to hear it all again.
Running Time: 2 hours with one 10-minute intermission.
“The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” runs until May 19, 2019 at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.