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Cupid and Psyche

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If you've seen Metamorphoses, you probably already have a fairly good understanding of the story of Cupid and Psyche. But, as Mary Zimmerman's play proved, it's possible to respin even the oldest and most familiar tales for modern audiences while preserving the elemental story that made the original so timeless.

If Cupid and Psyche is never quite Metamorphoses, it does succeed at proving that ancient myths are as likely subjects for musical comedy as they are for drama. Librettist and lyricist Sean Hartley and composer Jihwan Kim obviously take the story quite seriously, but don't shy away from letting it laugh when it needs to. The result is thoroughly charming and entertaining, but never cloying. And while it is, at times, self-referential, that attitude is hardly predominant.

In fact, it's one of the evening's funniest conceits that, while the people onstage really are Gods putting on a show for unknowing mortals at the John Houseman Studio Theater, they're just like contemporary Americans in all the ways that count. Venus (Laura Marie Duncan), is an over-protective mother who doesn't want her son Cupid (Barrett Foa) falling in love with the human Psyche (Deborah Lew), whom humans have begun worshipping in her stead. She charges Cupid to remove Pysche as a threat by making her fall in love with a cyclops, though he falls in love with her instead, yet is unable to reveal his true identity to her without jeopardizing their relationship.

It's to Hartley's credit that his joke about recasting the problems of the Gods in the modern verbal (and emotional) vernacular never gets old; it's thanks to Timothy Childs that, though there's a silly device of Cupid's friend Mercury (Logan Lipton) playing a phalanx of supporting characters and the show's style shifts dangerously from 1950s sitcoms to melodrama to vaudeville-tinged comedy to tragedy of Romeo and Juliet proportions, Cupid and Psyche always remains thematically - if wackily - consistent.

Childs seems to innately understand the eccentricities of Hartley's Gods and has defined his production to meet their needs. With a simple set (by David Swayze) consisting of little more than white walls, benches, and a couple of doors (painted with clouds), an easygoing lighting plot (by Aaron J. Mason) and winking costumes from Christine Darch like a glittery, revealing gown for Venus or a bicycler's outfit for messenger Mercury, these are not extravagantly appointed proceedings, but they're more than sufficient. (Only the show's limited and overly generic choreography, by Devanand Janki, makes its utilitarianism more a liability than an asset.)

More distinctive is the score, tinkling and magical for the Gods, grounded for Psyche, and always firmly rooted in theatrical styles. The song titles - Venus's "Spread a Little Love," Cupid's "One Little Arrow," perpetually single Mercury's "I Hate Love" - suggest a more generic tone not truly present in the score; the songs, steeped in bubbly melody and well-honed musicianship, are attractive and varied, full of honest character and droll humor, and never resorting to cheap tricks. Hartley and Kim love their work, and it shows.

With one exception the performers are all fine. Foa and Lipton humorously and effectively play their Gods as awkward, inexperienced teenagers, while Lew's Psyche is a tower of determination and fire, her feet planted on the ground while theirs are up in the clouds. The contrast works well, and all three performers' singing voices are strong, pleasant, and easily heard over the two-piano accompaniment (played by musical director Peter Yarin and composer Kim with additional supervision and arrangements by Edward G. Robinson).

But Duncan's Venus is a sumptuously inspired creation, and the real jewel of the production. Duncan's a knock-out to look at, as Venus must be, but her powerful voice, dazzling comic timing, and effortless command of the stage are themselves no less than divine. She struts through the joyous realm of her domain in "Spread a Little a Love," warns the audience to "Don't Mess With a Goddess," and expounds on her great talent to "Improvise" with absolute dramatic and musical authority.

Wonderful as Duncan is, she's surrounded by good people and a good show, so - sorry Venus - there's a great deal more to watch and enjoy about this show. If the historic story of Cupid and Psyche details how the heart and the soul can combine to form true love, Hartley and Kim's work demonstrates the necessity of a heart and soul in a musical as well. Cupid and Psyche has plenty to spare.

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Cupid and Psyche
Through October 26
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
John Houseman Studio, downstairs at 450 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444