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Myths & Hymns

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lucas Steele and Linda Balgord
Photo by Richard Termine.

Everyone knows the three rules of real estate are location, location, location, but the lesser-uttered three rules of musical theatre are context, context, context. Each member of the latter trio is violated time and time again, with good intentions and disappointing results, in the Prospect Theater Company production of Myths & Hymns that just opened at the West End Theatre.

Director Elizabeth Lucas has taken the 19 Adam Guettel songs that comprised the 1998 Off-Broadway concert evening Saturn Returns (but were recorded under this show's title) and reapportioned them into a new narrative of her own creation. In her story, it's the night before an elderly woman (Linda Balgord) sees her daughter (Anika Larsen) auction off her house and port her away to a nursing home; so the mother locks herself in the attic and forces herself to remember the life she'll be leaving behind, with prominent focus on the husband (Bob Stillman) and son (Lucas Steele) who died years before.

The problem with applying a plot this humdrum is that the songs themselves are anything but. Guettel, at the time of their creation hot off a major artistic success with Floyd Collins, scribed an astonishing array of numbers that captured visions of gods both old and new. Charting decadent tributes to the likes of Hero and Leander, Prometheus, Pegasus, Saturn, Icarus, and Sisyphus as intertwined with folk and gospel rethinks of classic hymns, Guettel wove an exotic musical tapestry that doubled as a swirling examination of spirituality's effect on the human soul. This is undoubtedly the quality that Lucas wanted to capture and develop, and it's certainly one from which vivid emotions could certainly be mined.

But Lucas's approach is too often generic, and even stereotypical, never reaching the heights of originality or treading the breadth of feeling that Guettel's songs do. The central conflict, to the extent there is one, centers on the woman's questioning her family's own relationship to faith. Under their evangelical roof, with the husband being a true fire-and-brimstone Bible thumper, she watched her teenage daughter and her young lover (Matthew Farcher) conceive and abort a baby, and her son romance another boy (Donell James Foreman, who plays a series of small roles), before getting caught and committing suicide. There are momentary elevations of tone, but for the most part the life depicted is a weak and unrewarding one in which Christianity caused pain but never eased it.

Leaving aside the nagging question of why the woman dwells on this agony so apparently lovingly in her final independent hours, there remains the issue of why she's so obsessed with Hellenic mythology. Lucas never explains, through either her fragmentary script or lush staging (on Ann Bartek's surprisingly inventive attic set), what inspires the woman to view her family through this lens, or what the concrete connections are between the numbers and the characters who sing them. The husband dies will singing "Sisyphus," for example, attempting to endlessly push a box up a ramp, but his hubristic link to the eternally punished king of Greek lore is never explored. Likewise, the ostracized son trailing his father in "Icarus" seems to run exactly counter to the plot we're seeing: Lucas needs someone to fall to his death for that song, and that's apparently reason enough.

The more of these incongruities we witness, the less cohesive Myths & Hymns seems; its 80-minute running time drags quite a bit, particularly in the confusing final scenes in which the action regresses even more into the shadowy recesses of the woman's psyche. The cast members are the production's saving graces, with largely excellent (if sometimes thin) voices that give Guettel's complex numbers their due; Larsen and Balgord display both the strongest vocals and create committed personalities that outline the inner angst their characters are suffering as their roles in life shift. In fact, they're compelling enough to make you believe their story and their history is one worth hearing, and even worth telling again.

But again: Context is everything. In the Myths & Hymns of Lucas's creation, their troubles seem too small, and the past on which they stand too imposing, to impress as anything but one squabble amid a lifetime of shouting. Guettel's songs, obviously written for the complex musicianship and steel-belted throats of today's more accomplished musical theatre singers, nonetheless demand shading and depth equal to that of their lofty subjects. If, at their heart, a large chunk of the Greek myths were nothing more than petty domestic arguments that shone the light of truth on the struggles of mortals, they nonetheless held ancient civilization in their sway. In bringing these tales so far down to Earth, Lucas only highlights the transformative power that they possess but her treatment of them lacks.

Myths and Hymns
Through February 26
West End Theatre, 263 West 86th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue in the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, second floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: