Allentown is all about the choices we make as young adults. How do we feel about our pasts and futures? How should we feel? Are preempted quarter life crises the new trend? Or have they been around for decades and only been given an ironic name more recently?
I have to wonder if playwright William Hinz was feeling particularly lost when he sat down to write the complex musical that is Allentown. The best of us do at the worst of times. But feeling lost doesn’t always have to be a bad thing when you’re in your early 20’s. Feeling lost can kick start a journey or a change, and that’s exactly what the characters of Allentown strive for. A journey towards change.
Freddy (Hinz) seems to become the glue to the show’s uncertain future. He is the heir to time’s ups and downs, and has the responsibility for his family’s re-connection packed within his suitcase. Just as Hinz embodied one of the lead character’s of his own writing, Freddy is given a choice to reconnect with his past and write his own future. If that’s not enough pressure he’s also responsible for the entire story’s future. Freddy is the yellow line between the Allentown train station and a journey to a new life in New York. Both Freddy and Hinz journey their way into our heart with awkward dancing, a classical voice, and an adorable bow tie.
Beside him sits Rose (Cassie George), an energetic New Yorker, born and bred, who ended up in Allentown after a rough ride growing up. George embodied the flamboyance and perky disposition that a New Yorker like Rose forces down your throat. With a personality only endearing Freddy could endure, Rose prances her way from stranger to friend within the hour before the train arrives.
Rose and Freddy each feel the pull between past and present with an inability to shake the influence their family has had on their lives. All Freddie has to go off is a piece of paper from his mother, while Rose keeps her grandmother’s memory close to her heart. Being in your early 20’s isn’t as fun as you thought it would be, and escaping your family and your past isn’t always as good.
Travel isn’t as simple as getting on a train in Allentown. From the moment each character steps onto the platform we enter an interchangeable landscape of time. We see separate eras: the 40’s, what seems to be the 70’s, and presumably a “now” somewhere close to our generation’s time, all on the one platform. While now reaches out to its audience, here doesn’t quite so much. With an Australian based writer, actors, artists, and company I was disappointed to see an American setting with such recognizable context and themes. Despite the apparent “American Dream” influence, my young Australian self was more drawn to the concept of choice. Choice speaks to all of us no matter where we are, how old we are, or how comforted we feel in our lives. Good and bad choices can sway our center and shake our cores like an end carriage on a train struggling to keep up with life’s pace.
Anna (Annie White) and Charles (Nicholas Prior) occupy the first stop on Allentown‘s journey through time. Together they are the recognizable and evidently timeless portrayal of the ‘friend zone’. Prior wins our heart with his endearing love for Anna and comforting voice (when given a chance to be heard), while White’s character exudes self obsession and tunneled vision. She also definitely has some real daddy issues!
Jump forward another 30 years or so and we meet young couple Albert (Alex Carlton) and Ruth (Chantelle Gardiner) in the recognizable public domestic we must have all witnessed at least once in our lives. Whether you’d change seats at the station or jump in to say something we all can recognise, if not relate to, Albert and Ruth’s struggles with their relationship. If Albert’s voice of reason didn’t win you over, Carlton’s singing voice must have! Pair it with heartbreaking tears and an insufferable wife and you know neither of their futures are looking bright.
To me, the play’s production felt like more of a creative development than an extravagant musical or off Broadway show.Thankfully Riley O’Hanlon’s costume design cemented the subtle difference in characters and eras, while packed luggage lined the stage for its train station landscape.
For a jukebox musical Joel O’Brien’s musical direction was executed brilliantly. Each song, familiar or not, fit its character like a glove, but never overshadowed the wonderful writing that grounded the play’s success. Moments between eras were rarely dull with each pair’s journey continuing even when paused in time and focus. Director Tim McGowan ensured that the moments in between were equally as moving or insightful as those shone under a spotlight. Each pair’s journey seemed to move like a steam train chugging up a hill, with each couple’s return to focus becoming a sudden change of gear and instant release back to the bottom.
Allentown speaks of three generations and multiple life struggles for an early 20s go-getter. While the audience is encouraged to anticipate what happens when the train arrives, I felt a hope that it never would. With so many talented young creatives, Allentown and Terra Nemo Theatre Company are speaking out for young artists, like a collective James Dean speaking to the timeless disillusionment and social estrangement every young person must overcome.
– Written by Rhumer Diball April 26th 2015