You never know where Broadway will turn for the basis of a musical. A musical version of Stephen King’s novel Carrie came and went in 1988 (but has since sprung up from the grave).Working: The Musical is an adaptation of author and historian Studs Terkel’s 1974 interviews with regular folk about their jobs. Avenue Q stars puppets dealing with issues like racism, urban decay and internet porn.
Each one has endured that initial “huh?” factor; they’ve even been produced locally – respectively, by Western Stage, Stevenson School and Paper Wing Theater. Just because a story seems unlikely for a musical doesn’t mean it won’t work. Urinetown, for example, is a Tony-winning hit (MPC Theatre did that one).
So here is Of Mice and Men, A Musical Drama, adapted in 1958 by Ira J. Bilowit, Wilson Lehr and Alfred Brooks, and brought to us in 2019 by Western Stage.
It opens with the iconic duo of the vexed George Milton (played by Colin St. John with terse energy) and his friend/charge Lenny Small (played as an endearing lunk by Scott Free) as they bed down in the woods of Soledad on the eve of their new jobs as ranch hands.
The two men banter in that classic, rustic dialogue that Steinbeck set down in ink so well, about being on the run, about their dream of homesteading. Then they sing. “Nice House” is pleasant enough, wistful, accompanied by birdsong that evokes the woodsy scene. Soon, they bicker over their meager meal of beans and Lenny gets a delightful and percussive kiddie tune called “No Ketchup.”
So far so good. The costuming is spot on, the sound design is good, and the lighting sets the right tone. Most importantly, the two main actors have good chemistry. They’re not awesome singers, but their relationship feels true. That’s crucial. When George gripes about Lenny, and Lenny mock-threatens to leave, George relents, saying, “I want you to stay with me.”
The rotating set for the ranch/bunk house is economical and nicely detailed. Among the ranch hands there’s old Candy (played with verve and pathos by William J. Wolak) who’s fearful that his usefulness is waning. Carlson and Whit are played, respectively, by Noah Esquivel and Joshua Reeves with a matching blend of yokel energy. Slim, a respected leader on the ranch, is played by Steve Wilson with a ramshackle gait, a raspy voice, and quiet authority.
They all joke about what kind of woman the new wife of the ranch owner’s son, Curley, will be. They sing a hoe-down number called “Buckin’ Barley” and the singing is rough, strays off the beat, is sometimes off key. That’s OK. It comes across as characteristic; they sing the way you think ranch hands would sing.
This has the feel of an Oklahoma!, but with less musical ambition and polish.
Curley’s wife is, notably, not named in Steinbeck’s book, as a commentary on women’s lack of identity back in the “good ol’ days.” But she’s plenty realized by Velvet Piini as vivacious, bored, yearning and devious, a foil to the best laid plans of men. And Piini has the best singing voice of the cast, like on “Wanna Feel at Home” and “Just Someone to Talk To.”
The story stays faithful to the book’s most timeless passages: “We could live off tha fatta the land.” And “Tell me about the rabbits, George.” And “Ain’t a lot of guys go around together,” as Slim tells George. “I don’t know why.”
George and Lenny fall into a short-lived stint on the ranch, bonding with the other workers, trying to protect their plan, while trying to stay clear of the owner’s prickly son, Curley (Jack Clifford, suitably obnoxious and mean).
Animals do a lot of foreshadowing. Slim, considered one of the more humane characters, talks about disposing of four puppies because they were more than their mother could support. That’s how mercenary this world is.
The themes and relationships in Of Mice and Men feel universal and true. They do in the musical, too. Dreams wither under the weight of circumstance, or they explode from human foibles.
The direction, by Jon Patrick Selover, is solid. The musical numbers do the job of moving the plot forward. There are some overly simple sung couplets: “Just because a guy is dumb/ That don’t mean that he’s a bum.” In one scene, a delay in a gunshot prompted a long pause during which the actors had to improvise.
One of the best scenes of camaraderie over the central dream of self-determination is at the bunkhouse of Crooks (Pete Russell, with downhome realness), a black ranch hand. When Curley’s wife intrudes on this session, the men turn on her with tribal male scorn. Hurt, she hits back from her position as the boss’ wife, and that of a white woman. It’s an impressive display of emotional wounding and power dynamics.
If you like musicals, this ain’t no Les Miserables or Evita or Lion King. A production of the work hadn’t seen the light of day in decades. But it’s a testament to Steinbeck’s writing that the story he published in 1937 has endured through all sorts of adaptations, and does so here.