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Review: Jeff Daniels' 'Roadsigns' has heart but is rough around the edges

Courtesy of The Purple Rose/Sean Carter Photography


In the world premiere of Jeff Daniels’ newest show “Roadsigns” dueling stories compete for the spotlight, and the end results are mixed. On one hand, the lyrical play features gorgeous music thanks to Daniels’ son, Ben Daniels, but on the other the music doesn’t always gel with the narrative and ends up hindering more than helping. However, The Purple Rose will likely get a long and healthy run out of the new play which had the audience on their feet after the opening night performance, but I left feeling sour and conflicted with the overall presentation of the material.

'Roadsigns' is told through two different timelines, one set in present-day at a small coffeehouse folk club and the other aboard a Greyhound bus heading north through central Illinois in July 1978. The main narrator of the story, Lenny (David Bendena - terrific), walks on a small stage with a 1936 Kalamazoo KG in hand and begins his story with soft tunes. At one point, Lenny (modeled after the prolific Lanford Wilson who wrote the song “Roadsigns” which Daniels based the play off of) was on the fast track for fame and fortune until he wasn’t, hence why he’s performing from inside a lowly coffeehouse. He begins his tale from his memory, reciting how at age 16, he packed up his guitar and bought a bus ticket non-stop for Chicago in the hopes of selling his songs and symbolizing the American dream.

The scenic design by Sarah Pearline is unique in that it keeps Lenny at the center of both timelines. The script doesn’t call for a younger version of Lenny, and Bendena is firmly planted on a small riser in the back while several other characters enter from the wings, place their own stools directly in front of him, and usher in the next interval of the story. We’re now on the bus, it’s 1978 where bell bottom jeans and Hank Willaims’ “Listen to the Road” reign supreme. It’s an awkward transition that’s not entirely mapped out at first, but once “Roadsigns” finds a bit of rhythm, the two timelines start to blend together.

On the bus, the characters come from all walks of life and are each in pursuit of a greater purpose. For bus driver Walter (Tom Whalen), his purpose, it seems, is to just plug the Greyhound company any chance he can, and disgraced pastor Robert (Richard McWilliams) wants to find something to love. Meanwhile, first class army ranger Harmon (Rusty Mewha) wants to serve his country and maybe take cute southern Dixie Darlene (Caitlin Cavannaugh) on a date (or for a quickie in the back of the bus). The widowed Esther (Ruth Crawford) is unsure of her purpose after burying her late husband, and Francine (Kristin Shields) - whose life was turned upside down after being knocked up with twins senior year of high school - would like to travel the world; and, finally, Tanesha (K. Edmonds) has ambitions of going to Motown and becoming the next Aretha Franklin.

Throughout “Roadsigns,” the narrative requires the ensemble to wear many hats as they help portray various stories of the past, like when Robert describes his falling out as a pastor amid his new religious awakening, the remaining members of the cast become members of the church and help fill out the background. Other characters aren’t so lucky to get a full-fledged backstory making it hard to lock down an emotional connection with the material. The show runs an intermission-free 90 minutes and director Guy Sanville is tasked with squeaking all these characters backstories in that short time span and by the time “Roadsigns” is over, you’re exhausted having tried to keep up with it all.

Cheesy lines (“When did you know who you were supposed to be”) fill the silence in between ballads and the actors’ transitions to a new timeline aren’t as seamless as the script thinks. It took me and my theater-going companion two minutes into a sequence to realize someone had embodied a different character entirely, and that’s because they changed their voice just enough to resonate.

But to give credit where it’s due, Ben Daniels wrote some unforgettable tunes for the show that music director Angie Kane manages effectively (the script also sneaks in a soothing and pitch perfect rendition of “Amazing Grace-” towards the end which K. Edmonds absolutely crushes). Pearline’s scenic work allows the entire cast full control of the stage to help foster the small vignettes, and the eight-person ensemble, mostly assembled of Purple Rose residential artists, help see past “Roadsigns'” more predictable elements. Shelby Newport’s costuming deserves praise alongside Noele Stollmack’s effective lighting design, both serving as unsung heroes behind the scenes.

At the end of the day, you can tell Daniels wrote the show from a place of love and compassion, and we’ve all been on those long bus rides that lead to some of the encounters depicted here. But I think there’s a concise and clearer version of “Roadsigns” waiting to burst from the seams, and if stuck back in the oven for a rewrite or two, perhaps the final trip could leave a stronger impression.

Roadsigns continues through March 14th 2020 at The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, MI. To purchase tickets and to see showtimes click here

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