The musical now playing at the Theatre at St. Peter's Church has all the makings of a good one - a colorful locale, emotional situations, and intriguing characters all contribute to the tapestry of Prodigal. But do the pieces add up to a satisfying addition to the American musical canon?
That's difficult to say for certain, since Prodigal is not an American work. Dean Bryant (book and lyrics) and Mathew Frank (music) have brought Prodigal from its origins in Australia (where it achieved great recognition and won a number of awards) to New York, where it ranks as the first Australian musical to be produced in the United States.
The basis of Prodigal can be found in the Biblical parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11). In this case, the son is Luke (Joshua Park) who, after graduating, gives up the opportunity to work in his father's business, instead opting to move to Sydney to study at the university. While there, he meets the free-spirited performance artist Maddy (Kerry Butler), and begins to accept the fact that he is gay.
His father (David Hess) takes the news very badly, and though his mother (Alison Fraser) is more accepting, Luke still has tough times ahead. After wearing out his welcome in Sydney with both Maddy and his new boyfriend Zach (Christian Borle, who also plays Luke's brother), he returns home to deal with the many problems he left behind.
There's much that is good in Prodigal: The set, by James Morgan, is colorful, adaptive, and industrial, looking much like corrugated aluminum (and there's even a yellow kangaroo crossing sign!), and, with Edward Pierce's lighting, we're easily transported to countless different locales with only the most minor of scene changes.
The performances, too, are strong, with Alison Fraser a particular standout, putting her powerful voice and plenty of fiery character to Luke's strong-willed mother. Joshua Park handles his character very well, making Luke consistent throughout the many difficult transitions of his life. Butler and Borle give very youthful, energetic performances, well matching Park.
Prodigal suffers most seriously, though, from a combination of its book and direction. James Morgan is never really able to bring out much depth in Bryant's spoken lines, when such depth exists. In fact, his staging of Luke's descent bears more resemblance to a theatrical acid trip than anything else, detracting from the meaning rather than enhancing it. His staging of the family scenes is simple at best and plodding at worst, and were it not for the actors, wouldn't play at all. The score is a catchy combination of traditional theatre music and modern pop, performed beautifully by the cast and composer Frank as the musical director and the show's piano player.
In fact, most of Bryant's book has a tentative quality not really befitting the subject matter. Bryant's book usually seems like one that doesn't shy away from presenting difficult issues, but isn't willing to tackle them directly.
This all makes Prodigal far too tame to be truly effective, with even the score and performances not sufficient to make the show stand out in a theatrical climate that is hardly afraid of tackling similar subject matter in more creative (but straightforward) ways.
York Theatre at St. Peters in the Citigroup Center