If one doesn't look too deeply behind the curtain, the entertainment value of this Broadway-minded production is YUGE.

Photo Credit: https://www.alongwayoffmusical.com/

A Long Way Off

Miller High Life Theatre 

7 June 2018

The venue should have clued me in as to how a big a deal this was, but I had heard of this free presentation of A Long Way Off, a stage musical with heavy Salvation Army (SA) involvement, on an AM black talk station*  in an ad with minimal production values. I also forgot about just how posh a venue the rechristened Miller High Life Theatre is.

It makes sense that  an organization so associated with helping the downtrodden such as the Salvation Army would stage a preview showing of a play intended for a Broadway run would go to the expense of presenting it in a setting comparable to theater on The Great White Way in a city about one fifteenth the size of  New York. That it is named for a beverage Salvationists doubtless encourage their ranks and beneficiaries to shun adds a smidgen of hilarious irony to the circumstance. This professional feel of this world premiere preview was made complete by a table selling T-shirts and cast recording CDs and an issue of Playbill with all the low down on the production; the latter includes ads for SA events and enterprises where space for Tony restaurants, clothiers and other upscale businesses would go. 

A Long Way Off  recasts Christ's parable of the prodigal son in rural Iowa on the cusp of the Great Depression.  A hired hand on a farm large enough to sublease to additional families proposes to his boss's daughter. She says yes, but the happiness that should follow from the couple's impending nuptials is diminished some by the absence of the brother of the bride to be. Dad, too, grieves the situation he sings from his estate's front porch. 

Turns out that the missing scion left on less than amicable terms with his pop, after having requested and received his portion of inheritance from his widower father and leaving to find his fortune in The Big Apple. He makes a killing on Wall Street. A flapper he dates gets possibly the play's funniest line when she says "I didn't ask you to lie!" after he speaks of defending her from accusations of being a gold digger once she hears word of his losses in the stock market crash of 1929.  

While he's asserting his delusions of authority as the "mayor" of the Philadelphia Hooverville, a the village of indigents named for the U.S. president of the era, his betrothed sister comes knocking on his hovel. She sacrificially postponed her wedding in order to seek out her sibling. Their mom's wedding ring, given to bro' as part of that premature inheritance, led her to her sibling. She breaks through his self-incrimination and shame enough to convince him to hop box cars in hobo fashion for their journey home.

During her months on the trail, the groom-to-be goes from hired hand to manger of his forthcoming father-in-law's properties. Power and the advice of a banker turn him from the hesitant, awkward innocent who sings his wedding proposal while nearly tripping over living room furniture in Dick Van Dyke sitcom fashion to a calculating, irritable schemer not averse to kicking sharecroppers who can't pay their share from the land they're renting. 

Anyone familiar with the scripture playwright Joe Caddy modeled Long Way on knows more or less how the story ends without a spoiler alert. Father orders the preparation of a feast big enough to feed the whole of their town to celebrate his offspring's return. His impending brother-in-law doesn't take kindly to that. The play ends less ambiguously than one might rightly read the Lord's own phrasing of His illustration of the lavish nature of divine grace; the arrival for the matrimonial ceremony of the po' folks from the Philly settlement adds a cute, if fantastical element to production played relatively realistically for a musical. 

As for the music. it follows a template of big, old fashioned melodies, suffused with giddiness, foreboding and the ability to pull heartstrings and open tear ducts as appropriate. Good enough to win any Tony statuettes? We'll see when and if the show makes it that far. Though this kind of material is rarely my first listening choice, what of it populates A Long Way Off works well enough to have me wondering when the next Broadway to pop chart crossover since Barry Manilow took Cats' "Memory" into the pop top 36 years ago. Regardless of whether this production makes that kind of headway, or even the more insinuating sort of cultural infiltration of Hamilton, composer Phil Laeger courses motifs for individuals characters and scenarios into one another to reflect the messiness of life and the interrelated nature of the integral facets of people's lives. A seven-piece band, featuring two trumpets and a trombone, brings the score to life. 

Impressive as so much of A Long Way Off is, discerning viewers should be concerned with areas of its foundation. Specifically, the Army's foundation,. Founded by William Booth in the spirit of Wesleyan Armenian revivalism, the organization has fallen down some of the current evangelical downgrade. Among vocal and dance ensemble is the show's female cast chaplain. More tellingly, Caddy amends his notes with a suggested reading list including mystic Henri Nouwen and social justice advocate Presbyterians Tim Keller and John Piper. Choreographer, or movement director as she is deemed in Playbill, Amber Hood cribs the title of Bethel Music artist Cory Asbury current cCm hit "Reckless Love" as a way to describe His affection for sinners; here's hoping she's not as enamored with the demonic goings on of the Redding, CA congregation behind Asbury's recording contract.

Within the context of the above caveats, the story's father figure forgiving of the debt of one of his renter's debt could be take within the theologically and economically left tendencies of some of the aforementioned figures. i'd rather believe that it's a thematic overflow from the gist of the parable being interpreted, though it could be either. 

Though these provisos aren't unimportant, they don't really register as distractions from A Long Way Off's entertainment value nor its broadly dawn moral. It's my wish that the Salvation Army would find firmer biblical footing. Whatever success they have with this production should be a welcome ray of positivity wherever it plays.

-Jamie Lee Rake