Review: "The Greatest Hits Down Route 66" Takes a Trip Through the American 20th Century

The Greatest Hits Down Route 66

Written by Michael Aguirre

Musical arrangements by Grace Yukich and Jennifer C. Dauphinais

Directed by Sarah Norris

Presented by New Light Theater Project in association with Calliope Stage and NewYorkRep at 59E59 Theaters

59 E 59th St., Manhattan, NYC

January 13-February 18, 2024

L to R front: Erika Rolfsrud, Kristoffer Cusick, Joél Acosta. L to R rear: Kleo Mitrokostas, Martin Ortiz, Andy Evan Cohen. Photo by Hunter Canning
Late in The Greatest Hits Down Route 66, a new play with music from playwright Michael Aguirre, one of the characters brings up the philosophical truism that a person can never step in the same river twice, an observation that applies not only to individual and collective histories but also to performing a song. Just as with live theater, each live performance of a song constitutes a discrete, transitory text (and historical moment); and in the case of folk music, the genre from which the play's titular hits are drawn, it is common for a song itself to take on different forms based on who is performing it. The folk songs in The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 come, more specifically, from The American Songbag, a collection of songs and fragments assembled from across the nation by the poet Carl Sandburg, himself a singer and guitarist, and published in 1927. In Aguirre's affecting meditation on family, nation, and self-fashioning, The American Songbag serves as a pivot point among one specific family who take a road trip in 1999 along what remains of the famous Route 66, broader questions of what it means and has meant to be "American," and the river of history as an unceasing flow of erasure and reinvention.

Fittingly, the clan at the center of The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 both is and is not the archetypal American nuclear family. On the one hand, for example, the family is made up of a heterosexual couple with two kids, a minivan, and a father inflexibly devoted to the itinerary that he has created; but on the other, the kids' paternal grandfather, Miguel, crossed the border from his native Mexico, following Route 66 and settling in the United States permanently, and the family's ability to take a road trip vacation is shadowed by suggestions of economic insecurity, especially in contrast to the children's ostentatiously successful uncle Tim (Joél Acosta). Tim is brother to the family patriarch (Kristoffer Cusick), who goes by Wolf Man for reasons which, it turns out, are probably not what you would think. Wolf Man's (estranged) relationship to Miguel supplies an important motivation for the trip, as well as for questions of identity that Miguel's Mexicanness raises for his grandchildren. Wolf Man's wife (Erika Rolfsrud) is of Polish extraction, a heritage that Wolf Man points out she, unlike him, can take up or ignore as suits her (although one anecdote underscores how she, along with her husband, is nonetheless categorized by class). Their elder son (Martin Ortiz), Luke, is a teen deep in the midst of a rebellious phase of intellectual skepticism fueled by numerous AP courses, while his sensitive younger brother, Michael (Kleo Mitrokostas), referred to by the family as Wee One, identifies himself as the artistic one.
L to R: Erika Rolfsrud, Kleo Mitrokostas, Martin Ortiz, and Kristoffer Cusick. Photo by Hunter Canning
In a humorous touch, Wee One is working on his articulation for an audition for his elementary school's production of a Brecht play, and The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 includes some elements of Brechtian estrangement itself, most extensively in a narrator (Joél Acosta, as charismatic in this role as he is transparently egoistic as Tim) who acknowledges the play as a play in addition to filling in personal and national histories, as well as in moments such as when an argument between Wolf Man and his elder son metamorphoses into a kind of fractious musical duet. Wolf Man, we learn, only ever took one trip with his own father, who was often absent in the pursuit of work, raising the question of whether this road trip will represent a change in or a repetition of history. We also learn that Wolf Man and Miguel once saw Pete Seeger in concert, one example of how music, including (the white male) Sandburg's collection of folk tunes, figured into Miguel's self-(re)fashioning as an American, as the art form has and does for so many others.

There was less, or less successful, self-definition as a father, one part of the way in which the play presents us with complex characters, including Miguel, people whose imperfections are inextricable from their attempts to figure out who they are to themselves and to others. Those attempts evince a blending of invention and fact in their personal histories which parallels that in America's national histories, an admixture explored as the family visits spots ranging from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis to a Carl's Jr. dining room and parking lot. Projections help us to visualize these stops, showing locations and miles covered, images of signs and monuments, and video of highways. The songs, performed by a live band fronted by gifted vocalist Hannah-Kathryn "HK" Wall, are smartly integrated into the dialogue and action, with the cast often joining in, rather than pausing the narrative. At least some of the selections, which include tunes such as "Sloop John B" (notably, a Bahamian song that made its way to the U.S.), "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain," and "Midnight Special," are diegetically justified by the greatest hits of early American folk CDs that Wolf Man brings to soundtrack the trip. The audience is occasionally encouraged to clap along or participate in a call and response, but more significantly, the play also finds the family enacting, like so many before them, their own, symbolically suggestive adaptation of this musical heritage.
L to R: Martin Ortiz, HK Wall, Andy Evan Cohen, and Joél Acosta. Photo by Hunter Canning
The cast incarnates the volatile combination of love and friction characteristic of many families (magnified by the close quarters of a road trip) with absorbing genuineness, whether the gruffness in tension with vulnerability of Cusick's Wolf Man; the earnestness and curiosity of Mitrokostas's Wee One; the pragmatic if not always obvious strength of Rolfsrud's mother; or the prickly contrarianism obscuring family feeling of Ortiz's eldest son. On its way to a moving conclusion, The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 mingles beauty and melancholy in its reflection of life as a member of a family and of a nation, an ever-evolving present bookended by a checkered past and uncertain future.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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