We all collect photographs, souvenirs, or even just our own memories to mark important life events. Each album is like a miniature time capsule, a Pandora’s box of emotions. Prospect Theater Company has opened a musical time capsule and brought forth a daring new show, Myths and Hymns, which focuses on themes of remembrance and reexamination. This work by established composer Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza; Floyd Collins) entered the theatrical vault in 1998, after it appeared as a concert version of songs under the title Saturn Returns at the Public Theater.
For Saturn Returns, Guettel wrote the songs by revisiting age-old myths: Icarus and Daedalus, Hero and Leander, Pegasus and Bellerophon, and Sisyphus. With this new production, director Elizabeth Lucas (Clear Blue Tuesday) dusted off the original song cycle, rearranged the pieces, and created a narrative to tie them together.
The new narrative focuses on an elderly woman who reexamines milestones of her life. Unable to speak after a stroke and distressed on the eve of her house’s real estate auction, she escapes to the attic of her family’s seaside home and uses keepsakes to retreat into her memories.
Like most memories, the woman’s are made of images, colors, moods and sounds, but rarely specific spoken words. Therefore, to contrast with the few words the daughter speaks to her mother in present-day segments, her memories use no dialogue.
This bold decision is meant to bring the audience into the elderly woman’s mind and emotions. Though this is achieved, we also unfortunately understand the frustration they feel from their inability to communicate and connect.
Linda Balgord (Gypsy; The Pirate Queen) as the Woman, makes a valiant effort to express all the emotions of each memory for such a complex, mute character, but she still seems distant and her expressions eventually become trite. Perhaps this is the result of her being staged to the side or amid each memory, thus requiring her to constantly react to the stage action, or it might be due to the episodic nature of the memories. Regardless, it is difficult to be invested in and relate to what is essentially an emcee of the memories.
Conversely, as the daughter, Anika Larsen (Xanadu; All Shook Up) tears at the heartstrings, especially in her solo “How Can I Lose You?”. She gives a layered performance in an equally complicated role, beautifully transforming between a joyful child, loving teen, and grieving adult.
Joining Balgord and Larsen are two other family members, around whom many of the Woman’s living album of memories centers, as well as a multifunctional chorus of three who add depth and texture to the vignettes.
Bob Stillman (Grey Gardens; the original Saturn Returns) as Husband and Lucas Steele (The Threepenny Opera) as Son complete the nuclear family.
Both tenors, Stillman is in better control of his pitch, as Steele sings some particularly flat high notes, though both vocal parts seem to be too high.
Stillman also has more flexibility with his voice, at times sounding very tender and romantic, other times harsh and punitive. Steele’s strongest suits are his movement and acting, perfect for a rebellious and cocky young man compared to Icarus.
The standout of the chorus is Ally Bonino (credited as Trickster) with a gloriously free voice. Matthew Farcher (Lover) works something like melancholy black-and-white photos, as he provides much romantic tension in the Daughter’s life, while Donell James Foreman (Shapeshifter) adds bright splashes of vocal color by portraying joyful characters that are full of life.
Combined, the chamber group of the three family members and three chorus members create the soundtrack to the Woman’s life, but she is ironically absent from it. If she was able to vocally partake in her memories, we would be able to connect with her experiences, not just watch her observing them.
Despite the disconnect with the Woman, the breathtaking tableaus makes audience members wish they could permanently capture these images in their memories.
Ann Bartek’s scenic design transforms from a realistic attic into abstract versions of settings for the memories such as a dock or a church, using little more than various sized cardboard boxes and wooden planks.
These scene changes are mostly seamless transitions that flow from one memory to the next, such as when Herrick Goldman’s lighting design changes from the shadowy attic to heavenly golden yellows, or when sound effects like crashing waves or a foghorn are used.
Despite her successes with these effects, sound designer Janie Ballard falls short. Some songs are so muddled that lyrics are indistinguishable over the six-piece orchestra, despite the incredibly intimate theater. A balanced sound and engaging sets and lighting are essential for a chamber piece like this that relies heavily on stage pictures in the absence of dialogue.
Elizabeth Lucas’ narrative devoid of dialogue provides a usable but faulted storyline that seems weak in comparison to Guettel’s songs. The narrative provides a suitable framework and storyline but Guettel’s songs are more than just about these characters. Like the mythological and religious source material, his songs are timeless and universal. Lucas’ narrative is a brave artistic work but just one adaptation and new vehicle for these songs. Perhaps by adding dialogue or incorporating the Woman into the songs in her memories, the audience would have a stronger connection to her, thus making Myths and Hymns a stronger work in its own right.
Photos: Richard Termine
Myths and Hymns, by Adam Guettel and Elizabeth Lucas
Playing through February 26, 2012
Prospect Theater Company at The West End Theater
263 West 86th Street, Manhattan
For tickets, visit www.prospecttheater.org or call OvationTix at 212-352-3101.
Music and Lyrics: Adam Guettel; New Narrative and Direction: Elizabeth Lucas; Choreography: Wendy Seyb; Musical Supervisor: Robert Meffe; Music Director: Katya Stanislavskaya; Stage Manager: Kristine Ayers; Scenic Design: Ann Bartek; Costume Design: Emily Morgan DeAngelis; Lighting Design: Herrick Goldman; Sound Design: Janie Bullard; Casting Director: Jason Najjoum.
With: Linda Balgord, Ally Bonino, Matthew Farcher, Donell James Foreman, Anika Larsen, Bob Stillman, Lucas Steele.
Conductor/Piano: Katya Stanislavskaya; Violin: Adam Waddell; Bass: Alden Terry; Percussion: Jay Mack; Guitar: Jonathan Russ; Cello: Allison Seidner.