Part rock opera, part fable, part dance extravaganza, Tumbleweed
Connection rides a wave of brilliant music considered to be the making
of Elton John’s career.
At the dawn of the twentieth century the destinies of two brothers are
forged by an act of vengeance and an unbearable family secret. Their
loyalties, loves and beliefs are threatened in a desperate crucible of
duty, war and betrayal. Woven through the fabric of this moving, human
drama the music of Elton John provides an uplifting, melodic eloquence
that can only be expressed in song. His familiar tunes create a perfect
synchronicity of colorful characters, powerful words and brilliant
dance – a true twenty-first century folk opera. And the result is
“Tumbleweed Connection” is a lavish new musical fueled by the great music of Elton John and Bernie Taupin and filled with talent, from the writer, directors and designers to an array of more than 40 actors, singers and dynamite dancers.
The show’s world premiere at the Clark Center is an opportunity for local audiences to appreciate the theatrical riches in the area.
“Local” doesn’t mean amateur. Writer Christopher Kahn, director Bill McLaughlin, choreographer Suzy Miller, and musical director Alissa Aune are pros with impressive resumes, and many members of the cast and ensemble are graduates or students of PCPA and Cal Poly theater studies.
Production values are also professional, a combination of creative talent and the excellent facilities at the Clark Center. It’s a theater where designers with a dream have the technology to make it come true.
The show was built around songs from the 1970 album “Tumbleweed Connection.” The songs are good to begin with, and when they are woven into the story the lyrics take on new meanings.
The story by Kahn is set in Oklahoma during World War I. It centers on two brothers, Jeb, a happy, sanctimonious and patriotic Christian engaged to the lovely Amoreena, and his “bad” brother Joe, who is usually running from the law. Both boys go to war.
The plot is complex, with several themes running through it regarding war, bigotry, religious hypocrisy and homophobia. By setting the scene in this time period, the writer has been able to avoid having to be politically correct.
Brady Beckstead plays Jeb, and Greg Correia is Joe. Both are good actors with fine voices that handle Elton John’s music with aplomb. Kerry DiMaggio is the lovely Amoreena, and she has a beautiful voice. One of the most interesting characters in the show is Reginald, “the angel in the tree,” who narrates now and then and seems to orchestrate some of the action. Dolan Wolfe-Callanta, a PCPA alumnus, is superb as this mysterious being, with an androgynous physical grace and powerful presence.
Delilah Kujala, also from PCPA, is good as the American Indian woman who becomes entangled in Joe’s dramatic life, and Randy Lee Hose performs a show-stopping dance number as her warrior father.
Everyone in the 20-plus member cast is good, and the lively ensemble of more than 20 singers and dancers of all ages joins them to energize the show’s rousing moments. Some non-John songs of the period have been added, such as “Over There,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The dance pieces have a wide range of settings and styles, including a prison, a bar in France, a battlefield, an Indian funeral and a raging fire. The dancers move the set pieces between scenes, dancing as they do so.
The sets and lighting are stunning and provide the production its lavish quality. Shelley Malcolm is set designer and Rick Pierce is lighting designer. Donna Sellars and Natalia Berryman designed the costumes, which include the period clothing, as well as skimpier costumes for French nightclub women and Indians. But there is a fantasy element in some of the pieces, and that’s where the creative costuming comes in to depict angels with silver dreadlocks, bewigged demons and other fanciful dancers.
For a premiere performance, “Tumbleweed Connection” has few problems. Some of the numbers run too long, and could be approached with a little editing and tightening. And the Oklahoma accents are a bit thick, making it difficult at times to understand the dialogue and lyrics.
But those are minor flaws. The show deserves big audiences and a bright future.