No one had heard of Hurricane Katrina when the Peter Mills-Cara Reichel musical The Flood premiered Off-Off-Broadway in early 2001. For that matter, few had yet heard of Mills or Reichel. But interim events, both meteorological and theatrical, have made the time ripe for revisiting all three. And the Prospect Theater Company's new production of The Flood, at the American Theatre of Actors, illuminates the propitious and unfortunate notes in all of them.
Mills and Reichel based their story on the 1993 flooding of the Mississippi River, which all but destroyed the small Illinois town of Valmeyer, but couldn't squelch the spirits of its inhabitants, who soon rebuilt the town on higher ground. Watching the show today, one can't help but think of Hurricane Katrina, which last year brought the full wrath of Mother Nature but couldn't stop Mardi Gras from proceeding the following winter: American life might sometimes pause, but it always goes on.
When Mills and Reichel stick to this aspect of the story, The Flood is awash in the heartfelt emotions and glorious songs their previous shows (such as the recent Iron Curtain, or last year's The Pursuit of Persephone) have led us to expect from them at their best. They've even written here what might be their most sophisticated score, completely free of the overly clever filigree that sometimes adorns their work. Surging anthems and rapturous hymns crown a collection of complex character songs that detail the inhabitants of this small Midwestern town (renamed Meyerville) with a loving but not uncritical accuracy.
Where they err is where they so often do: in sipping more than they can swallow. Suggesting they didn't consider American resiliency in the face of catastrophe enough, they've bestowed the burden of myth on a story too straightforward to bear it without buckling. By making the Mississippi a literal character (played by A'lisa D. Miles), who stands as a constant reminder of nature's supremacy rather than as a more vaguely metaphorical threat, Mills and Reichel dwarf the human tales they're telling better than they ever have before.
These include the first-love fling of teenagers Raleigh Keller (Matt DeAngelis) and Alice Wright (Jamie Davis); the grown-up romance between farmer Curtis Mowers (Jonathan Rayson) and longtime love Susan Frye (Catherine Porter), a schoolteacher still coping with the death of her father and his unprofitable land; and the inability of Raleigh's and Alice's fathers (respectively Joseph O'Brien and Drew Poling) to cope with their growing and changing children.
Director Reichel ensures that the tension mounting in these stories - Does Raleigh want more than sex from Alice? Is Alice's developmentally challenged sister Rosemary (Jennifer Blood) misunderstanding Raleigh's friendly overtones? Is Alice's father's reliance on the Bible doing his family more harm than good? - breaks just as Meyerville's levee does. And after the flood - which Reichel has staged exquisitely to highlight its epic and intimate overtones - when everyone is left swimming uncertainly, it seems as if the real story of The Flood is just beginning.
But as Miles constantly reminds with her ethereal, wordless melodies that increase in urgency with the water level, the river takes what it wants. And after it's robbed Meyerville's citizens of their livelihoods, the show itself all but dries up: As there's little doubt about the ultimate outcome, the story ought to gain momentum from demonstrating how hearts and homes can be rebuilt after devastating loss, but practically none of this is shown. Even the show's closing images and sounds aren't hopeful, but ominous: We're never allowed to leave the river behind, even when those from Meyerville must do exactly that. The result is a show that may occasionally be dammed, but too often overwhelms its creators.
It only feels fully contained during its best songs (which Mills and Daniel Feyer have beautifully orchestrated for a seven-member orchestra), such as the near-opening "One Hundred Years," paying tribute to the town history that will soon be history; Alice's "From Here," in which she surveys her future from Meyerville's new, safer location; the resplendent "Higher Ground" finale; and "Float," for Susan upon learning "Maybe the things that disappeared / Are the ones that I wanted to sink."
That number, the climax of both the show's plot and emotional narratives, was frequently heard at Katrina relief benefits. Porter lives up spectacularly to those expectations, finding all the personal depth it allows, and using it as the centerpiece for her character, the show's most fully developed. She's terrific throughout, very adult, very alive, but afflicted with a childlike confusion about her place in the world and the fear she'll eventually be swept away by life that movingly mirrors everyone else's struggles.
But with the exception of O'Brien, whose jittery, declamatory acting strikes a consistently false note, there are no other standouts: This is a company that, like the townspeople they're playing, must rise or fall together, and by and large they rise impressively as a group for whom a crisis was an opportunity, not an excuse. The Flood is never better than when they speak or sing with one voice, the voice of America that can overcome any adversity given trust and time. They're just not allowed that opportunity often enough.