‘The Greatest Hits Down Route 66’

The play with music examines family relationships, American folk songs, and a famous highway that connected America’s small towns.
‘The Greatest Hits Down Route 66’
(L–R) Joél Acosta, Erika Rolfsrud, Kristoffer Cusick, Kleo Mitrokostas, and Martin Ortiz in “The Greatest Hits Down Route 66.” (Hunter Canning)
NEW YORK—Part family bonding experience, part history lesson, part exercise in nostalgia, Michael Aguirre’s “The Greatest Hits Down Route 66” takes the audience on a trip down one of America’s most storied highways. Presented by New Light Theater Project, this play with music can now be seen at 59E59 Theaters.

A Journey Down America’s Highway

It’s 1999, and the Franco family is about to take a trip on the “Mother Road,” as Route 66 is affectionately known. Their journey will take them from Chicago to California and back again. To be more specific, they'll drive along what remains of the Mother Road. Route 66 was officially removed from the U.S. Highway system in 1985 but has been kept alive since via a legion of historians, aficionados, towns, sites, and signs marking its route.

The Franco family consists of father, Wolf Man (Kristoffer Cusick); Mother Dearest (Erika Rolfsrud), Eldest (Martin Ortiz), the couple’s 17 year-old son; and Wee One (Kleo Mitrokostas), their youngest boy, age 8. The trip is based on an actual journey the playwright took with his father.

Wolf Man, a former marine and one of four children, is a meticulous and emotionally closed off soul. He has planned this trip’s itinerary down to the last detail, which includes 117 specific stops with no allowance for any variation. Even unexpected news does not cause him to change the family’s plans. Any small talk he makes during the trip, such as pointing out a special site, or how he once took a similar trip with his father, are brief. It falls to the Narrator (Joél Acosta) to add important bits of background information that Wolf Man is not yet prepared to share.

Throughout the play, the audience is treated to songs from “The American Songbag.” This collection was compiled by Carl Sandburg who, in the early part of the 20th century, traveled around the United States and wrote down the songs he heard.

However, as the Narrator points out, while Sandburg did indeed document close to 300 songs, he may have heard songs that that he left out.  Some of these didn’t interest him, and others he simply didn’t understand. As a result, many songs from that period are lost to time, as are other events in America’s history that were never fully documented, or that, for one reason or another, were simply glossed over. The show mentions, for example, the building of the country’s railroads and the untold number of laborers who died in the process.

Subjective memory is a running theme throughout. Events one generation chooses not to tell the next will eventually be forgotten. Or, if they remain in some form, they become impossible to verify after those who had firsthand knowledge of them pass on.

Some of the show’s songs explore this premise. Verses of  “Midnight Special” or “O Shannadore, also known as ”The Wide Mizzoura“ may be quite different from versions a listener has heard elsewhere. There is also the interesting question of just who or what ”she“ refers to in ”She'll Be Comin Around the Mountain.”

Other generational differences are explored via Wolf Man’s contentious relationship with Eldest. Eldest is a young man who questions everything and is determined, though not quite ready, to leave home and forge his own path.

In contrast, Wolf Man’s past family obligations limited his opportunities in life. Dear Mother sums it up perfectly when, after yet another argument between the two, she comments how alike father and son are, even if neither will admit it.

Yet, despite all the disagreements, the four quickly band together when faced with a common adversary: Wolf Man’s arrogant and far richer brother (Joél Acosta). The result of this conflict leads to an intense sports challenge, a final family visit, and a trip that yields a much more intimate experience than any of them ever bargained for. It will be one they will always remember.

An Enjoyable Journey

While no member of the cast particularly stands out, all acquit themselves well. The actors each embody somewhat stock characters, yet they’re ones the audience can identify and empathize with. Who you'll relate to best probably depends on where you are in your own life’s travels.

The music is enjoyable. The songs are enthusiastically delivered by the cast, Narrator, and lead vocalist Hannah-Kathryn “HK” Wall. The company is backed by an excellent three-piece band. Credit must also go to musical arrangers Grace Yukich and Jennifer C. Dauphinais.

(L–R) Wolf Man (Kristoffer Cusick) and Mother Dearest (Erika Rolfsrud) hug, while singer Hannah-Kathryn Wall and Narrator Joél Acosta give musical accompaniment to the scene. (Hunter Canning)
(L–R) Wolf Man (Kristoffer Cusick) and Mother Dearest (Erika Rolfsrud) hug, while singer Hannah-Kathryn Wall and Narrator Joél Acosta give musical accompaniment to the scene. (Hunter Canning)

“The Greatest Hits Down Route 66” offers a road trip with a family that eventually finds something they never realized they were searching for. The show does take a few minutes to get going, but long before it’s over, you'll be glad you’ve taken this journey.

‘The Greatest Hits Down Route 66’ 59E59 Theaters 59 E. 59th St. Tickets: 59E59.org Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission) Closes: Feb. 18, 2024
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Judd Hollander is a reviewer for stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.
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