A unique cast filled with enthusiastic performers. A string quartet providing musical accompaniment. A literal onstage bicyclist. Plus two recent Film Independent Spirit Award nominated guest directors, reading action lines and guiding the efforts of this very particular—and very talented!—group of performers, including newly-minted Oscar winner Taika Waititi, and one of my personal all-time favorites: Andre Royo, who I originally loved watching as Bubbles on HBO’s The Wire.
It was another great Film Independent Live Read, this time of Steve Tesich’s Oscar winning script of the Peter Yates directed 1979 cult classic Breaking Away, which took place on Tuesday, February 25 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, the first of two Film Independent Live Reads in as many weeks—to be followed the following Wednesday by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
This Live Read had a kind of improvisatory quality that managed to poke fun at the performance’s own stage bound limitations while still delivering an impactful telling of Breaking Away’s heartfelt coming-of-age story. The evening’s guest directors, Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin, are the creative team behind this year’s buzzy indie The Climb—for which, admittedly, I’ve only seen the trailer. But even in that abbreviated setting, the duo’s subtle comic sense is palpable, attaining a casual and understated hilarity in the face of the brutal truth of heartbreak and betrayal.
Thanks to the delightful chemistry between the performers, musicians, directors and certainly even the audience, there was a buzz to the room the whole night. In fact, the reading managed to bring all of us in the crowd into the action, breaking the fourth wall with a playful energy. And even a few comments from the directors that—whether intentional or not—seemed to be directed at those of us watching.
I remember seeing Breaking Away when it first came out and being touched by its life-affirming humanism. I wondered: how could a story about a boy with dreams of being a pro-cyclist be so powerful for a kid like me, whose aspirations were musical? Later, I came to realize it was because of the film’s masterfully straightforward telling of a coming-of-age journey of young man whose dreams were bigger than his life could encompass. The uncontrolled joy of the main character, Dave—played in the original film and, in a surprise turn, again onstage February 25 by Dennis Christopher—delightedly responding in Italian to people in small-town Indiana was recognizable to me as something of my own experience. I felt the same sort of bursting-out with joy.
A stationary Masi Bike was the solitary onstage prop, atop which none other than Film Independent’s own Cooper Hopkins appeared at numerous times during the performance as a surrogate cyclist for Breaking Away’s many bike-bound action scenes. Hopkins’ vigorous pedaling fused with Christopher’s dialogue about his love of riding and the Italian athletes he so admires, to create a character bounding with youthful swagger in all things, including his charmingly clumsy pursuit of love interest Katherine (played onstage by The Climb’s Gayle Rankin).
Christopher wasn’t the only returning member of the original Breaking Away cast. Legendary character actor Paul Dooley also returned to reprise his role as Dave’s father, adding yet another meaningful layer to interactions between two characters.
The quartet of string players played beautifully. The music was all from the original film score and the pieces were selections from well-known composers of the classical repertoire. Some of the music was very energetic and seemingly technically challenging, with the musicians performing with poise and sensitivity throughout and adding another level of emotional intensity to the proceedings.
At the energetic peak of the action sequences, some unexpected humor crept into the reading through off-the-cuff interjections from Waititi and others, commenting on the physical humor of Hopkins’ frantic bike-riding, as the quartet raced up and down the necks of their instruments in perfect sync.
After the performance, the woman seated next to me struck up a conversation, pointing out the ways in which the actors had invited us in the performance on a number of occasions—just one of the things that made it such an endearing overall experience.
There was a certain free-spiritedness about the approach to this Live Read, starting from the introduction of the players. There were a few standing ovations, and the supportive energy continued throughout the performance. There was palpable approval from the audience at the improvisations and unscripted moments. It felt like the original energy from the film had been re-created for this reading: a celebration of life bursting with joy.