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Theatre Review: Knockout Finale, Strong Cast Propel "Route 66" at NKU

You’ll get some kicks with “Route 66” by Commonwealth Theatre Company at Northern Kentucky University through July 27.
For those kicks give a big ‘Thanks!’ to the talented,  hard-working and completely engaging cast -- Roderick Justice, Joshua Steele, Wes Carman and Dain Alan Paige – and their even more talented, hard-working and completely engaging director/music director Jamey Strawn. 
The harmonies are to die for through musical styles that reflect changing regions and years. 
(See Jackie Demaline's preview of the show: click here)
Surrounded by gas station and logos and road trip signs from back in the day, “Route 66” takes us on a tour from Chicago circa 1958 through eight states and at least five years.
The clever set (by Terry Powell) has rotating panels which reveal state postcards (the old-time ones with states names spelled out) as the quartet journeys across 2,500 miles.
The ‘center square’ panel is in the style of an old car radio, complete with static. There are lots of commercials and they haven’t even gotten to California and it’s 1963.
The problem with “Route 66” is that the first act is made up almost entirely of novelty songs, mostly about cars and driving, most of which you’ve never heard of and aren’t catchy enough to remember.
What you will remember is how good this cast is, and not letting you know how hard they’re working. And the zillion costume changes, designs by Ronnie Chamberlain.
They win the audience over, separately and together. Apple-cheeked NKU student Carman charms as a goofy guy gaping at a “Girl on the Billboard”; “Beep, Beep” with Carman, Steele and Paige draws giggles. 
But the first act highlight is Justice singing not about the road but about “Oklahoma Hills.” It suggests that show creator Roger Bean (who cranks these revues out, including the “Marvelous Wonderettes” series) should have included songs about places on the way – and something with more meat than “Gallop to Gallup.”
The second act is better, mostly because it has a couple of hits well-performed by the company –“On the Road Again,” “King of the Road” – and then it heads straight for Santa Monica and Sixties surfer music, when we loved our Mustangs and GTOs and of course that “Little Old Lady from Pasadena.”
Justice scores again with “The Long Red Line,” a modern cowboy lament in part about interstate highways replacing the old roads, Route 66 in particular; Justice is also responsible for clever choreography that’s efficient and effective and carries a lot of comedy when it needs to.
Steele shines for strong vocals, both as lead singer and back-up; Energizer Bunny energy; and being everyplace he needs to be with complete conviction – and that includes as the front end of a cow.
The finale “Fun, Fun, Fun”/”I Get Around” is a knock-out.
Review by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts Contributor
Route 66, through July 27, Fine Arts Center, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights. $30 dinner and show. Tuesday-Saturday: 6:30 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. show; Sunday: 5 p.m. dinner, 6:30 p.m. show. For more information and tickets call the NKU Fine Arts Box Office at 859-572-5464.
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