The young, shapely, gym-addicted cast provides distractions aplenty, and those responsible for the writing (Gary Morgenstein did the book, Jonnie Rockwell the music, and Erik Ransom the lyrics) and staging (Rachel Klein directed and choreographed) ensure you have plenty of opportunities to gawk. Take your pick: during the knee-slapping dances, a simulated-sex scene, or on the numerous occasions the members of an aerialist trio (led by the limber and focused Brian Joseph Ferree) undress still further before wrapping themselves in and flying about by way of cords, vines, and fabric harnesses à la Cirque du Soleil and AntiGravity. As Mel Brooks wrote for The Producers, “When you got it / Flaunt it” — and The Anthem has to flaunt it, because it sure ain’t got much else.
Those endless, twisty routines, like the design theme of a coke-addled disco, complete with mirrored ball (the Blade Runner–meets–Star Trek–meets–ecstasy rave set is by Robert Andrew Kovach, Kryssy Wright, did the freebasing-neon lighting, and Klein did the costumes), have nothing to do with the story, of course, which is devoid of the tangible, bold ideas you might expect given the source material. As the title suggests, it’s ostensibly based on Anthem, Ayn Rand’s brisk 1938 paean to individuality, which tackled the evils of Soviet Russia by extending them to their logical, dehumanizing conclusion. And there are certainly echoes of its original tale of a young man who longs to do, think, and be special things in a society that equalizes everyone by making everyone less than the most they can be, and who discovers his deeper potential — and love — when he discovers an ancient underground room that opens his mind to the mystical science of, well, the era in which we live today.
But unlike the book, or even the powerful (and rigorously faithful) stage adaptation seen Off-Broadway last year, this telling never attempts to own, let alone define, its concept. Too often it’s happy to settle for being a cut-rate Battlestar Galactica knock-off (and I mean the 1970s one), focusing exclusively on the pretty people parading about the stage. But The Anthem is barely able to stand upright long enough for you to follow it: Worse than its having a muddled message is that nothing it’s able to sputter out makes sense.
If, for example, the ever-questioning Prometheus (Jason Gotay) is inspired by the copy of Anthem he finds in the subway, why does he never read it, refer to it, or learn from it? For that matter, why is he punished by sending him to the “forbidden library” when books are supposedly banned? If the very word “I” is a capital crime, why does everyone say it all the time? Or in a ruthlessly rigid collective, how can there logically be a First Citizen, Pandora (Jenna Leigh Green), and a Second Citizen, Tiberius (Randy Jones)? Is Prometheus’s creating a light bulb really an accomplishment when electric illumination courses through every room of the starship-inspired setting? And, either way, why do outraged drones shine flashlights on his face seconds after he makes public his creation?
If such implosive errors didn’t make it impossible to take The Anthem seriously as an adaptation, the finale — which reveals that the desire for individuality invariably leads to anarchy and the destruction of civilization — would. It’s a far cry from Rand, so much so that it’s unlikely to please any Objectivist or wannabe; and there’s neither enough material or weight for it to satisfy as a biting critique of individualism as a personal philosophy. The plodding, repetitive songs, which ring with the musical clarity and lyrical insight of drunken karaoke, are as negligible as they are forgettable, with the marginal exception of “State-Sanctioned Love,” a loopy but catchy 1950s-styled ballad for Prometheus’s intended mating partner, Hera (Remy Zaken).
Only in the second act, when the authors abandon their pretense and depart from Rand entirely to spin their own web of outer-space intrigue, do things pick up; though the narrative twists are hardly revolutionary, they’re inescapably original and detectably more than half-hearted. And a few of the performers — particularly Gotay, who projects a fine, tainted innocence as Prometheus, Zaken as the fiery Hera, and a magnetic Ashley Kate Adams as the true object of Prometheus’s desire — come close to rising above their swampy surroundings. Jones, the original Cowboy from The Village People, isn’t a compelling singer or actor, but nonetheless seems right at home amid all this disco insanity.
Everything else about The Anthem is hopelessly out of place and jumbled, when it isn’t flat-out sloppy. If, as seems the case, it was intended as a repudiation of Rand’s ideas, the creative team may do more harm than good to that cause: Bearable shows are typically much better at winning minds. At least they still have the jumpsuits.