The road to enlightenment does not pass through every part of Dodger Stages. Altar Boyz might give you the closest thing to a religious experience you'll get at a contemporary musical comedy, but nothing about Sidd - the new musical by Andrew Frank and Doug Silver that attempts to do for Buddhism what Godspell did for Christianity - confirms or even suggests the existence of any higher theatrical power.
That's somewhat comforting, given that Sidd is an adaptation of Hermann Hesse's allegorical novel Siddhartha, which advocates searching for answers within instead of without. Hesse's story, of an Indian man who spends his entire adult life trying to understand his place in the world, became an unsurprisingly influential 1960s title, in part because of its antiestablishment undercurrents; it's also a typical read for those in their early 20s trying to learn who they are and who they should be.
But if Hesse's story covers well-trod territory for those still trying to find themselves, it's anything but typical in structure and tone. With few dramatic events, scant character sketches for everyone except Siddhartha, and almost all of his character development highly internalized, this is not a tale that would seem to sing in most languages common today.
To their credit, Frank (book, lyrics, and direction) and Silver (music and lyrics) display an admirable fidelity to Hesse's plot. They recount nearly every trial and travail of Siddhartha (Manu Narayan), the young man who sacrifices his life of privilege to better understand the world he lives in, from his run-in with Buddha (Arthur W. Marks) to his sexual awakening with a woman of pleasure (Natalie Cortez), and his fate as a ferryman who discovers wisdom in the waters of the river and the people who cross them.
In every other way, the adaptation is so rote as to suggest that Frank and Silver didn't understand what lay beneath the story. Buddha's presence as Siddartha's contemporary, and Siddhartha's rejection of his teachings, is vital; updating the action to the present makes nonsense of this. Siddhartha looks, sounds, and behaves like a spoiled preppie (who nonetheless hails from a nondescript village), not a young man hungering for truth. And His discovery of spirituality is essentially an instantaneous turnaround, not a gradual process.
But even for a show so condensed, the action is one giant lull never enlivened by song or dance (the minimal choreography is by Fran Kirmser Sharma). Silver's vaguely East-Asian score (Ned Paul Ginsburg is the musical director), when combined with Frank's pith recitative-laden lyrics, make for a score full of tuneful but pedantic and unmemorable numbers.
Worse, they explore almost exclusively the surface concerns Hesse took great pains to avoid. The score only elevates the show when it taps into his most central ideas, which happens only twice: In the first act with "Buddha's Song," which the magnetic Marks performs with stark emotional clarity; and in the second act with a series of four numbers on the ferry, which so effortlessly chart Sidd's journey through the final stages of his life that you begin to think Siddhartha might have made a solid musical after all.
The performers shine most in this section, though Dann Fink is appealing throughout as Sidd's energetic, capitalistic boss, and Gerry McIntyre brings some authority to Sidd's multiple father figures. Narayan, though, is a highly disaffecting Sidd, playing as much for comedy as he can get away with (though the material is not exactly brimming with jokes); Cortez generates no heat as the courtesan who introduces Sidd to the ways of love. In fairness, both were last-minute replacements for actors who departed during previews; their performances may still develop.
The show they're in, though, is unlikely to find a satisfying final form in this incarnation. Frank's direction lacks a unifying concept that might make sense of these disparate elements: Why is Sidd's picaresque depicted on a completely nondescript set (by Maruti Evans)? Why does Michael Bevins's inordinately elegant costume plot (which includes business suits) not allow shoes? And how can making this story less specific make it more timeless?
That most baffling choice has led to the destructive transformation of Hesse's crucial character Govinda, Siddhartha's lifelong friend greatly influenced by both his successes and his failures, into the vapid Valerie (a helpless Marie-France Arcilla), who has no discernible impact on Sidd's life. But with no human landmark along Sidd's journey, we never have a concrete, objective sense of who he is or what he's experiencing at any given point.
As Frank and Silver haven't musicalized over these gaps, we have a story that can't end because it never truly begins. Following an abrasive audience clap-along to the show's torridly blatant spiritual theme song, "Always on the Way," they conclude things with Narayan sitting cross-legged on the stage, repeating "Om." But Sidd gives us no way to tell why that's supposed to be enough for him, or for us.