On-the-road stories have produced numerous first-rate movies, but the makers of musicals have tended to avoid the genre – until now. The singer-songwriter Patty Griffin has written music and lyrics and Keith Bunin the book for 10 Million Miles, a show that takes us along the highway from southern Florida to upstate New York.
The young couple Duane and Molly are driving north to escape their humdrum lives in Miami; he’s an Army veteran with a taste for hyperbole, she is pregnant and unsure whether the father of her baby is Duane or someone else.
Griffin’s weather-heavy lyrics evoke inchoate longings and useless desires, and the music channels everyone from Joni Mitchell to Trisha Yearwood. The tunes feel more like cuts from a concept album than story-advancing aspects of a musical, but they can be lovely – the kind of thing Duane and Molly might hear if, on their journey, they set the radio dial to a late-night country station.
Although Duane, played with a combination of Patrick Swayze hunkiness and Jake Gyllenhaal confusion by Matthew Morrison, occasionally bursts into a dance step at the hint of good news, he and Molly are at the stage in life when everything seems vaguely hopeless. The downbeat ambience and Bunin’s undistinguished dialogue tend to keep 10 Million Miles earthbound.
While Griffin paints the couple’s moods with an artist’s brush, her score is so ballad-sodden that all the sad colours tend to blur. The story jumps to life when the itinerant young lovers encounter one of the roadside types played expertly by Mare Winningham and Skipp Sudduth.
Winningham has a wonderfully expressive folksinger’s voice. Her plaintive rendition of an unlikely number called “Making Pies” (surely the only song devoted to that subject since Mrs. Lovett baked the offal of clerks and priests into Sweeney Todd confections), is one of 10 Million Miles’s highlights. Another pleasure: the director Michael Mayer’s creative use of Duane’s red Mazda truck.
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