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Off Broadway Reviews

Villa Diodati

Part of The New York Musical Theatre Festival

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

At Villa Diodati, the new musical concerning the throbbing passions surrounding the genesis of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, you will never find yourself shouting, "It's alive!" Mira J. Spektor (music and libretto) and Colette Inez (lyrics and libretto) have imbued their show with all the classic elements of success - luxurious love, vibrant-voiced performers, lush poetry, and a visionary director (Rob Urbinati) - but have not yet discovered how to make it thrillingly musical but not dramatically inert.

Spektor and Inez have enlisted Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and William Wordsworth to help ornament a story about two married American tourists (Sarah Arikian and Mark Campbell) taking what could be their last trip in Europe: The man is awaiting the results of an unspecified medical test that could spell an early end to his life. The two visit the Cologny manor where the betrothed Mary (Elizabeth Cherry) and Percy (Sal Sabella) and the illicitly paired Byron and Claire (Mary's sister, played by Lauren Hauser) communed during the summer of 1816, to be haunted by the quartet's ghosts out to prove what living life to the fullest really means.

The four read from works such as "When We Two Parted" (Byron), "One Summer Evening" (Wordsworth), and "I Arise With Dreams of Thee" (Shelley), which Spektor has set to unabashedly operatic music that wraps you in the warm embrace of the writings' timeless romanticism. Her and Inez's original compositions, such as the melancholy-hopeful "A Perfect Day," Frankenstein's Monster's rumbling "Conceived in a Flask," and especially the soaring "There Is No Heaven but My Love" fit in seamlessly among them.

But the superb performers, Urbinati's declarative staging, Thomas Carlo Bo's elegant musical direction (and, with Spektor, sumptuous orchestrations for piano, violin, and cello), and Sidney Shannon's elaborate period costumes can't disguise the show's complete lack of action. After the tourists arrive, they literally vanish into the manor's history (he as Byron; she as Mary's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) and don't resume their own lives until the inconclusive finale. The writers they conjure speak and sing many beautiful things, but leave behind few specific insights into the creation of either art or life: Byron's assumption of the Monster role and Mary's scene-length dream about being visited by her dead mother (Arikian) and losing Percy in an accident go nowhere, if rapturously; the details and derailings of the various couplings are at best implied, and don't inform much beyond themselves.

Gorgeous though the songs are, as written and sung, they're not quite exquisite enough to overcome the scenario's inherent dullness. The book either needs an injection of life, or it needs to be ejected altogether - a program insert states that portions of the work were first heard as a song cycle, and what's here suggests that's still their ideal method of presentation. But the songs unquestionably deserve to be heard: You'll probably hear no better musical all this year than Villa Diodati. You will, however, almost certainly many far better shows.

Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival

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