If the words Cumberland Mine and Brokedown Palace resonate with you, chances are you'll have a pretty good time at Red Roses, Green Gold, a new jukebox musical at the Minetta Lane Theatre filled with tunes by the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. If you're also looking for a compelling plot that links those songs together, you'll be disappointed. Book writer Michael Norman Mann has stitched together a nonsensical story from 20 or so Dead songs that not even the show's talented cast and creative team can rescue.
Years ago in Cumberland County, a place of liars and cheats, the patriarch of the Jones family, Jack (Scott Wakefield), swindled the Palace Saloon from the McElroy family. (It's the late 1920s, though you'd never know that from Ásta Bennie Hostetter's mélange of costumes, including psychedelic multicolored pants for one of the McElroys.) Now the bank is threatening to foreclose on the saloon after the Joneses fall behind on payments, giving the McElroys (one of whom may be the devil) a way to get back what once belonged to them. But before that can happen, Jackson is struck by lightning and dies. His will stipulates that the saloon should go to whoever wins a poker game. So the Jones and McElroy families go head-to-head in a winner-take-all card match to see who will own the Palace once and for all.
Red Roses, Green Gold promises big things when we enter the theater, judging from Robert Andrew Kovach's ambitious set, the enormous wood-paneled, deer-head-bedecked interior of the Palace. Unfortunately, the plot, which strains itself red-faced trying to be funny, gets in the way of the production's successful elements. Red Roses, Green Gold is most enjoyable when director Rachel Klein makes the show into a good old-fashioned rock concert, as when Jamie Roderick's colorful, sun-ray lighting sweeps from the stage into the audience during high-energy numbers like "Wave That Flag" and when Kim Carbone and Ben Scheff's amped-up sound design fills the theater in songs like "Touch of Grey" and "Casey Jones."
Those are the moments that get audience members on their feet and singing. An announcement at the beginning of the show encourages us to do just that at any time, but few at the performance I attended took advantage of the opportunity until the end, despite the talented cast's best efforts during the show's two hours and 15 minutes. Several of those actor-musicians stand out. Wakefield and Maggie Hollinbeck (as Jack's girlfriend, Miss Glendine) duet beautifully in their heartfelt rendition of "Ripple," and Brian Russell Carey (as Dudley McElroy) does some fancy footwork while playing the fiddle in songs like "Alabama Getaway." But guitarist Michael Viruet (as Jack's ne'er-do-well son, Mick) supercharges the stage with an all-out physical performance complete with leaps into the audience. When the story doesn't intrude, the show and its performers deliver genuine excitement.
Whether it's worth wading through a drawn-out plot to get to those performances will depend on how invested you are in the music. Deadheads will probably want to check out Red Roses, Green Gold, if only to share the experience of hearing Dead songs performed in the company of other hardcore fans. Those looking for an entertaining story to go with the music may want to "turn around and leave and walk away."
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