'Red Roses, Green Gold': Theater Review

Courtesy of Chad Batka
Michael Viruet in 'Red Roses, Green Gold'
If Jerry Garcia wasn't dead, this show would have killed him.
1/7/2018

This new musical about a family of con artists features Grateful Dead songs written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter.

Surprises are few and far between in Red Roses, Green Gold, the new off-Broadway musical featuring songs by The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. The show's setting, Cumberland, Maryland, is inspired by the song that opens it ("Cumberland Blues," natch), and after that, the featherweight endeavor crams some two dozen beloved Dead songs (Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann are credited with "additional material") into a flimsy narrative that wouldn't sustain an animatronic theme-park attraction. The book by Michael Norman Mann must have been written under the influence of the band's favorite illicit substances.

For the record (a term which should prove accurate in this case since, despite the legions of Deadheads around the world, box-office prospects appear dim), the story is set in the "Palace Saloon and Mining Company," owned by fast-talking con man Jackson Jones (Scott Wakefield). The time period, according to press information, is meant to be the 1920s, although when two characters go to the movies they're watching 1903's The Great Train Robbery. Jackson, the sort of father who proudly teaches his daughter Melinda (Natalie Storrs), whom he calls "Bandit," the fine art of being a card shark, resorts to his duplicitous instincts when faced with an eviction notice.

Said plan, at least what can be discerned of it between the frequent musical numbers, involves his wayward, larcenous son Mick (Michael Viruet), who's enticed home when Jackson pretends he's dying of "The Black" and has found a treasure of emeralds. Other characters include Miss Glendine (Maggie Hollinbeck), Jackson's bartender paramour, who can't bring herself to say "I love you" (at least until a key moment late in the show); Bertha (Debbie Christine Tjong) and Liam (David Park), who strike romantic sparks; and the dastardly McElroy brothers, Dudley (Brian Russell Carey) and Jessup (Michael McCoy Reilly).

It's the dim-witted Dudley who provides comic relief, such as it is, as illustrated by this exchange, which gives you an idea of the dialogue's sophistication: "Well, ain't you two just a couple of Good Samaritans," Jackson tells the brothers. "Oh, I wish," Dudley replies. "We ain't never been to Samarita."

The sketchy storyline mainly provides an excuse for the actor/musicians to deliver the numbers arranged by Jeff Chimenti, a longtime touring member of The Grateful Dead and its offshoots. But while such songs as "Truckin'," "Alabama Getaway," "Brown Eyed Woman," "Ripple" and "Touch of Grey" haven't lost their appeal, the renditions here often leave much to be desired. Many are delivered in a frantic, overamplified style that robs them of their charm. In general, the quieter, acoustic numbers fare best, such as the second-act duets on "Box of Rain" and "Ripple." But it all mostly sounds like you're listening to a Grateful Dead cover band at a Holiday Inn lounge in Schenectady.

Director Rachel Klein has encouraged the performers to mug shamelessly. They also sometimes leap off the stage into the aisles as if to startle audience members awake. As for their performances, suffice it to say that as actors they make fine musicians. The audience is encouraged to sing along and even get up and dance, and that goes about as well as you would expect. The bar is kept open throughout the show, assuring a steady stream of people walking in and out of the theater. Robert Andrew Kovach's elaborate, wood-laden set design, at least, proves impressive.

The Minetta Lane Theatre is one of off-Broadway's best and most sadly underutilized venues. Sadly, this misbegotten exercise is unlikely to break its losing streak.

Venue: Minetta Lane Theatre, New York
Cast: Brian Russell Carey, Maggie Hollinbeck, David Park, Michael McCoy Reilly, Natalie Storrs, Debbie Christine Tjong, Michael Viruet, Scott Wakefield
Book: Michael Norman Mann
Songs: Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter
Director-choreographer: Rachel Klein
Set designer: Robert Andrew Kovach
Costume designer: Asta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting designer: Jamie Roderick
Sound designers: Kim Carbone, Ben Scheff
Projection designer: Brad Peterson

Musical supervisor & arrangements: Jeff Chimenti
Presented by MWM Live

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