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Death for Five Voices

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Nathan Gardner, Meghan McGeary, Ryan Bauer-Walsh,
and L.R. Davidson
Photo by Richard Termine

You may think that piano chords are giving way to human voices. Or that the dusty mechanics of the past are making way for the innovations of the future. Or even that it's merely the first major disagreement between two friends who are about to be transformed by their divergent outlooks. But during the surging, searing expanse of "Strange Relations," the astounding centerpiece of the new Prospect Theater Company production Death for Five Voices, which just opened at the Sheen Center Black Box, one conclusion is inarguable: You are experiencing something entirely, excitingly new both for the musical theatre itself, and for this work's brilliant songwriter, Peter Mills.

The setup is deceptively simple. Carlo (Nathan Gardner) has just revealed himself to his close friend, Fabrizio (Nicholas Rodriguez), as the pseudonymous composer of a daring concert piece that Fabrizio loathed at its public premiere. Heartbroken and infuriated, Carlo sits at his harpischord to demonstrate his unique perspective. Upon plunking out chords representing tenor, alto, and soprano singers, he cajoles Fabrizio into admitting that basic movements, such as between C major and B minor or G major and A-flat minor, are acceptable and pleasing to the ear. But the journey from C major to A-flat minor is a step too far. "It's awful," Fabrizio shrieks. "It's the relation between them. There's something unnatural in it."

But beneath, and eventually beside, Carlo's keystrokes appear singers who supplant the physical instrument with their own vocalizations. And as their chords blend and bend, shifting and evolving in unexpected but delectable ways, you are thrust into the minds of both groundbreaking genius and earthbound traditionalist, living both their lives and outlooks at once. "Deep in the well of your soul it sings," Carlo sings above the crashing song beneath him, "Under your defenses against such things / A sweet intoxication / All the more intense for being taboo. / Open up your mind and I'll join you there. / Together we'll discover / Something rare, / But something true."

Nicholas Rodriguez and Manna Nichols
Photo by Richard Termine

It's an irresistible invitation, and one that captures the essential conflict of Death for Five Voices, but it's only one of many that Mills extends. In spinning this story of the collision of unchecked ambitions and desires, for which he also co-wrote the book (with his wife and most frequent collaborator, Cara Reichel, who also directs), Mills has drawn inspiration from an abundance of sources related to his real-life subject Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), ranging from period sacred music to contemporary Broadway and, finally, blood-pumping Italian opera. Yet Mills weaves these elements (including, quasi-Wright-and-Forrest style, some of Gesualdo's own madrigals and "Tenebrae Responsoria" Passion setting) so seamlessly into Fabrizio's pursuit and acquisition of Carlo's wife, Maria (Manna Nichols), and the revenge that Carlo enacts, that there's never a hint of gimmickry—only a constant, elegant progression through one tortured artist's difficult life.

What you get in the end are Mills's most stirring, shocking, and boundary-pushing compositions to date—as well as some of his finest. Those only familiar with him through the lighter musical comedy at which he's demonstrably excelled over the last 15 years (including, among others, The Taxi Cabaret; Illyria; Iron Curtain; and The Pursuit of Persephone, aka The Underclassman) may be stunned at the darker emotional power he excavates from these relationships and thrusts into the likes of "Ever Closer" (a chilling montage covering three years and the developing romance between Maria and Fabrizio), "Defenseless" (the consummation of that illicit courtship), "You Should Not Have Loved Me" (its denial-drenched resolution), or "The Vigil," when everyone pays for their transgressions. But, at the very least, these accomplishments brand Mills as a far more serious talent, and formidable musical dramatist, than even his ardent fans had previously had cause to believe.

One can't help but wish that all of Death for Five Voices was at this level. But, too often, the crushing narrative strength of the score is not supported by the libretto. Carlo and Maria, for example, are shallowly tied; we know that they're first cousins, but only a couple of lines describing Carlo's musically obsessive personality explain why he largely abandons her, and it's not, as presently constituted, sufficient to drive her into Fabrizio's arms. A major subplot involves Carlo's clergyman-on-the-rise uncle, Alfonso (Jeff Williams), pushing his nephew to ply his talent for the Church instead of for-profit performance, but both sides of the argument (and its curtain-dropping resolution) appear flimsy in light of the fires that too seldom burn within Carlo.

Secondary characters, too, appear sketchy. Much is made of Maria's maid and confidant, Sylvia (L.R. Davidson), harboring an all-consuming crush on Fabrizio, but nothing is made of this. Carlo's long-suffering mother, Girolama (Meghan McGeary), is too driven by surface-level social desires to construct a new life for her son, so the devastating payoff for her machinations feels rather cheap. And though Carlo's servant, Pietro, is sensitively played by Ryan Bauer-Walsh, his arc and contribution to the climactic confrontation between the three lovers are clumsily, unconvincingly executed.

The reasons for these disconnects are not immediately obvious, though it seems likeliest that Mills and Reichel don't yet trust their writing enough to let it bear more weight still. A few moments, particularly involving Carlo (the most undercooked of the principals), cry out for a more thorough lyrical exploration; and some dialogue scenes, most notably during Act II at its most feverish, could benefit from the fresh urgency music could bestow. (The final one, between Alfonso and Carlo, is so anticlimactically distended, it's probably best discarded altogether.) One understands why the writers might not want to venture too close to opera, but the late plot justifies (and, to some degree, receives) it, suggesting that a smidgen more may help rather than hurt.

In any event, Reichel has provided a gripping, fluid staging that's airtight match for the material and marshals both the flesh-and-blood and incorporeal characters and clashing locations and personalities with the same sly facility Mills does the diatonic and chromatic. The excellent production design incorporates the warm stuffiness of Ann Bartek's medieval backroom set with Susan M. Nicholson's shadowy lighting and Sidney Shannon's lush costumes, and extends to the haunting-string orchestrations that Mills wrote with Daniel Feyer and are gorgeously played by musical director Max Mamon's small ensemble—this is an evening that looks exactly the way it sounds.

For the most part, the company adeptly completes the effect. Nichols and Rodriguez are superb, she balancing innocence and unresolved yearnings and he projecting unquenchable sex-symbol id, and both sing with rhapsodic beauty. McGeary injects Girolama with a compelling desperation and Davidson Sylvia with a muted comic sense; both actresses skillfully upend their roles' historical archetypes. Although Williams plays Alfonso sincerely and decently, more cunning might elevate the threat he represents. Only Gardner fails to satisfy: He sings well enough (if not with robust authority), but has conceived Carlo more as an irritated prodigy who might have wandered out of Sunday in the Park With George than a man who's forever at the flash point of belligerent people and ideas.

To be fair to Gardner, it's only when Mills renders those battles in resolute musical terms that they truly land; otherwise, this is a musical that is first and foremost at war with itself. But considering that the best of what's here transcends what you'll find in any other new musical in town, that might just be a war worth waging—and, for audience members lucky (and smart) enough to get tickets, watching from the sidelines. Even in this not-there-yet incarnation, Death for Five Voices is thrillingly, theatrically alive.

Death for Five Voices
Through April 17
Sheen Center for Thought and Culture, 18 Bleecker Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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