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The Greatest Hits Down Route 66

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 23, 2024

Kleo Mitrokostas, Erika Rolfsrud,
Martin Ortiz, and Kristoffer Cusick

Photo by Hunter Canning
If you've ever been curious about who the "she" is in "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain," you will be happy to learn several differing hypotheses in The Greatest Hits Down Route 66, a sometimes affecting, sometimes discordant patchwork quilt of a play by Michael Aguirre, opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters.

This 100-minute work (no intermission) changes dramatic styles at the drop of a hat, randomly bouncing from easygoing satire to angry polemic to an immigrant's tale to a father-son contretemps to a series of factoids about poet Carl Sandburg's compilation of American folk songs known as "The American Songbag," snippets of which are performed by the cast members and an onstage band that features a fine if underutilized lead vocalist (Hannah-Kathryn "HK" Wall).

Sandburg described the popular collection, originally published in 1927 and still available for purchase in a 1990 edition with a forward by Garrison Keillor, as a "ragbag of stripes and streaks of colors." That's a pretty apt description of The Greatest Hits Down Route 66, directed by Sarah Norris, that incorporates occasional excerpts from "The American Songbag," arranged for the production by Grace Yukich and Jennifer C. Dauphinais.

The show itself is neither fish nor fowl, neither a play with music nor a musical with a dramatic underpinning. Indeed, there is precious little connecting the two components that have been collectively charged with the task of telling the tale of one American family taking a road trip from their suburban Chicago home westward to Los Angeles and back again.

The year is 1999. When we first meet the family, they are gearing up for the trip, whose itinerary has been carefully laid out by the patriarch known as "Wolf Man" (Kristoffer Cusick). His intention is to follow as much as possible the highways and byways that mark the remains of the historic tribute to life on the open road, Route 66. The rest of the family consists of the matriarch known as "Mother Dearest" (Erika Rolfsrud), their eight-year-old son known as "Wee One" (Kleo Mitrokostas), and Wee One's 17-year-old brother known as "The Eldest" (Martin Ortiz).

If you imagine that these cartoonish character names mean you're in for a satire of the suburban American family, you'd be partly right. At times, the four do seem to have been drawn from the same inkwell as, say, "The Simpsons." But during the journey in the family's Dodge Caravan (depicted by a set of packing cases and a couple of chairs by set designer Anna Kiraly, who also provides video projections of several stops along the way), we find more than one tale driving the action. For in between the comic bits, this is also a more serious play, often told in fragments, about challenging relationships between fathers and sons, about the experiences of Wolf Man's immigrant Mexican father, about prejudice and the impact of white privilege.

Each of these dramatic scenarios gets its own piece of the action, along with interpolated bits of analysis of the selections from "The American Songbag" that are performed at various scattershot moments in the play. Throughout, a narrator (Joél Acosta) serves as our guide and occasional cheerleader, who aims at garnering audience participation.

Doubtless, the play has a lot to say about many significant issues in what often has the feel of an autobiographical expedition, but The Greatest Hits Down Route 66 is both too much and not enough of a trip down the pot-holed highways and byways of life.

The Greatest Hits Down Route 66
Through February 18, 2024
New Light Theater Project / Calliope Stage and NewYorkRep
59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: