Take Comfort: Jeff Daniels and Purple Rose Theatre's "Roadsigns" is like a '70s folk song come to life


Purple Rose's Roadsigns

For more than a quarter-century, Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre has specialized in new plays that don’t normally require a music director.

That's why I was initially surprised to hear that a musical (or “play with music”?) called Roadsigns would have its world premiere there.

But then I quickly remembered the theater’s movie/Broadway/TV star founder, Jeff Daniels, has been performing his ever-growing catalog of original folk songs as an annual fundraiser for the Rose, and his son, Ben Daniels, is a professional musician in his own right.

Then the whole notion of a Purple Rose musical felt not just sensible but downright inevitable.

Indeed, the seed for Roadsigns was planted long ago, in 1978, when iconic American playwright (and Daniels’ mentor) Lanford Wilson overheard Daniels playing guitar in his dressing room in New York. He suggested the actor build music around a poem Wilson wrote about a bus ride he once took from Missouri to Chicago.

So my sense while watching Roadsigns was that I was seeing a '70s folk song come to life was right on the money. (Jeff Daniels wrote the play; he and Ben Daniels wrote its original music.)

Standing upstage center on Saturday night was our guitar-wielding guide for the show, a seasoned, working singer/songwriter named Lanny (David Bendena) who’d taken this bus ride as a young man to chase his music-fueled dreams. At the wheel was Walter (Tom Whalen), a former bar owner who’s been nursing his heartache for years.

Riding along in the seats are an on-the-make serviceman Harmon (Rusty Mewha) and the object of his pursuit, a blond bombshell named Darlene (Caitlin Cavannaugh); an older woman named Esther, reeling and bitter from her lifelong husband’s sudden death (Ruth Crawford); Tanesha (K Edmonds), a grieving mother who plans to seek singing stardom by way of Motown; a mom of twin boys named Francine (Kristin Shields), whose marriage has come apart; and a flask-sipping former preacher, Robert (Richard McWilliams), whose unorthodox beliefs caused him to be cast out from his church.

Though the show runs an intermissionless 90 minutes, Roadsigns doesn’t exactly feel fleet because there’s no unifying dramatic question driving the whole. Yet there are nonetheless pleasures to be had in Daniels’ theatrical hybrid.

Seated on chairs in a stage-sized V, with the driver (Whalen) sitting a bit apart at the front, the show’s talented ensemble, guided by director Guy Sanville, runs a kind of theatrical tag-team relay, where each character gets at least one song to establish who they are, how they came to be on the bus, and where they’re headed.

The show, with music direction by Angie Kane, takes a few numbers to get on the road (pun intended). Plus, it flirts with predictability, kicking off with an (admittedly catchy) ode to travel-as-self-exploration (“Listen to the Road”) and featuring a rendition of “Amazing Grace,” as well as a romantic-come-on song (“My Darling Darlene”) that puts the show’s spotlight on two of the most overly familiar, least individualized “types” of this bus bunch.

Yes, Harmon and Darlene are part of Wilson’s original blueprint, which ultimately seems both a blessing and a curse for Daniels, as evidenced by moments like Francine’s obligatory, too-long soliloquy about refrigerators. But Roadsigns never gets all that far beneath the surface of either of the would-be lovers.

Still, characters like Tanesha, Esther, and Francine have more complex (and thus more compelling) backstories, and as you gradually give yourself over to the show’s folksy pacing and vibe, each character’s moment of truth starts eliciting more and more goodwill and charm. This is partly due to the stage being packed with pros.

Bendena expertly performs the entire show’s music in tandem with playing a role in two different time periods and gracefully eases his way into and out of the spotlight. Edmonds powerfully conveys Tanesha’s outsized self-assurance and heartbreak while also delivering some strong vocals. Shields’ “Sometimes I Dream” is a wistful, quietly absorbing highlight, and Crawford gives a short master class in communicating the conflicting, seemingly endless layers of feelings we experience in the face of sudden loss.

In terms of the show’s technical achievements, Sarah Pearline’s deliberately, affectingly spare set design, backed by hanging images that show what the passengers might be seeing outside their windows, keeps the focus squarely on the characters while also giving them plenty of space to move. Shelby Newport’s costume design, meanwhile, stylistically suggests the show’s late ‘70s setting in a more subtle, dignified way. Rhiannon Ragland’s choreography often gives the disparate characters unity through movement and also provides us with more to watch by way of physical activity. And Noele Stollmack’s lighting effectively helps tell a story that pinballs its focus from one passenger to another.

There’s ultimately something quintessentially pleasant and comfort food-y about Roadsigns -- and God knows that a new year’s earliest months in Michigan are the perfect time for that. So while not every Roadsigns song and character has been created equal, they will nonetheless probably leave you feeling satisfied.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

"Roadsigns" is at Purple Rose Theatre through March 14.