Review: ‘Red Roses, Green Gold’ Brings Back the Grateful Dead
For an act to get the jukebox-musical treatment, hits are a minimum requirement. Abba, Frankie Valli and Carole King all had success on the charts before their music overtook Broadway with “Mamma Mia!,” “Jersey Boys” and “Beautiful.”
The Grateful Dead had only one Top 10 song, “Touch of Grey,” and yet here is “Red Roses, Green Gold,” Off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theater. Not only that, but this is the third show the writer Michael Norman Mann has created using the Dead’s catalog, after “Cumberland Blues” in 1998 and “Shakedown Street” in 2005.
Not too bad for a band whose reputation was built on intense touring and extended live jams.
The good news is that the songs, which lean heavily on a classic Americana sound, are effective in a sit-down, smoke-free theatrical context. The show, which is billed as “featuring the music of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter” (Mr. Hunter was the Dead’s nonperforming lyricist), sometimes feels like a wacky relative of the Steve Martin and Edie Brickell Broadway bluegrass musical “Bright Star.”
Even better for non-Deadheads, “Red Roses, Green Gold” lasts just over two hours rather than four, with numbers that mostly clock in around three or four minutes.
Unfortunately, Mr. Mann has shoehorned them into a cartoonishly corny story.
Like “Cumberland Blues,” the show takes place in a theme-park version of a Maryland mining town in the 1920s, more specifically at the saloon and mining company owned by the debonair Jackson Jones (Scott Wakefield). Alas, a pair of scheming brothers (Brian Russell Carey and Michael McCoy Reilly) have their sights on taking over the Palace, which is that in name only.
To nobody’s surprise, their plan is foiled at the last minute, thanks in no small part to Jackson’s prodigal son, Mick, played by Michael Viruet as a Jimi Hendrix-esque rogue prone to flashing his nipple rings and manscaped torso. While I am not a professional historian, these do not appear to be period- or setting-accurate.
The zany mood is furthered by Rachel Klein’s bouncy staging and Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s colorful costumes, which land somewhere between Laurel Canyon hippie bohemia and carnivalesque traveling show, with nods to the Dead’s trademark red roses and skeletons.
As manic as the goings-on are, they cannot entirely detract from the music, which borrows extensively the Dead’s two best studio albums, “American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead,” both from 1970 — plus, yes, “Touch of Grey.” Arranged by the keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, a longtime satellite in the Dead galaxy, the songs are drenched in folk, country and blues, and rendered quite well by the multitasking cast, which plays all the instruments.
“Truckin'” and “Friend of the Devil” rumble along like the classic bar boogies they are, but the most striking numbers are the quietest ones, such as “Box of Rain,” delivered by Natalie Storrs and David Park, who portray Jackson’s daughter and her love interest.
When the cast comes back for encores, Ms. Storrs belts out the kind of vocal runs that are Broadway’s answer to jammy solos. The world of music is smaller than you may think.