10mile2.jpgAtlantic Theater Company / Chelsea / NYC
On through 15 July
atlantictheater.com

A Semi-Sparkling Roadtrip Into Too-Familiar Territory. Or: Plainfolk Sing Their Hearts Out. In a Truck.

Chelsea’s hip Atlantic Theatre’s latest bold offering, “10 Million Miles,” an intermissionless country/folk musical with songs by Patty Griffin and book by Keith Bunin, is equally impressive and frustrating. A Cliff Notes recap – warning: plot spoiler approaching – would be thus: young, jittery, hunky ex-military guy (Duane) impregnates cute, emotional party girl (Molly) and literally escorts her up the East Coast finding love and loss (of, yes, the baby) in the process. Via crooning.

First off, “10’s” stunning design elements frequently threaten to upstage everything. Set designer Derek McLane’s smart use of a transformative red pickup truck (it’s a motel room, it’s a diner, it’s a truck again!) often out-thrills the plot. The spin-able old auto is nicely flanked by evocative, scaled-down water towers and power lines, and a great skyscape of rolling clouds backdrops it all. Gorgeous lighting by masters Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer moves us up the East Coast through many a sunset, sunrise and starlit night. The sound design and execution is thankfully clear, and we hear each and every lush lyric. A versatile band (they sing backup, ya’ll!) floats above the action. Finally, the believable, everyday costumes do look as if, yes, they prob’ly came from some Southern mart (K, Wal- or otherwise).

The four performers contribute varying degrees of magnetism and believability. Matthew Morrison brings his flawless (and startlingly Broadway-stripped) voice, ultra-sexy machismo and a pensive jockishness to the character of Duane. Though occasionally too jumpy and cutesy, he nicely evokes the love child of, say, Jake Gyllenhaal in “Jarhead” and Justin Timberlake in “Black Snake Moan.” (You’re calling the box office now, aren’t you!? Shameless.) Morrison’s co-lead, Irene Molloy (as Molly) is less convincing. Though she sings the heck out of her numbers and looks the part (did anyone else think she was Shania Twain up there!?), Molloy sometimes seems under-equipped in scenework. Film/TV star Mare Winningham (“St. Elmo’s Fire,” people!) brilliantly embodies the many women encountered on the journey. She gives a masterclass by distinguishing each character through adept South to North dialect work (even when she sings!), physicality and energy shifts. Her hysterical drunk newlywed Lois is worth the ticket alone. Also, Ms. Winningham has a truly fantastic voice and wonderful control over it. Who knew!? “10” nearly becomes her show. Skipp Sudduth, a nice character actor with a pleasant voice, isn’t quite the chameleon Winningham is in portraying the menfolk, but he performs nicely, especially as war vet Levon in a touching scene/song with Mr. Morrison.

Frankly, the story itself isn’t the most compelling or fresh, and it’s often too easy to anticipate. And while Griffin’s songs are mini-masterpieces with smart, grounded lyrics, I can’t say I remember one. Oops. Unfortunately, the transitions from scenes to songs and back are mostly awkward, abrupt. Often, you can predict a song (even before its tell-tale intro notes/underscoring) at about the same point in every formulaic scene. (It’s an Ah…yep…I bet they’re-gonna-sing-their-hearts-out-again-now kind of feeling.)

Recent TONY-winning director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening” –if you live under a rock and hadn’t heard) guides us along briskly with a nice way of lifting particularly emotional moments into the theatrical. (Downstage center in-our-face sing-acting, anyone?)

But overall, “10 Million Miles” left me pondering: do these types of everyday folk (with simple stories to tell and everyday words and melodies to tell them) fit in a musical? Do they mesh well with the musical medium as we’ve come to know it? For me, it can read as hokey and misplaced. (Case in pt.: “Ring of Fire.” Yikes!) Luckily for Mayer and his talented team, there’s enough good and interesting here to keep you seated for 90 minutes.