Sound Advice Reviews
The two very different subject matters surveyed this timeLGBT history and mythology modernizedare touched by death, but burst with life. The mostly earnest Unbreakable's survey of gay struggles includes a tale ending in suicide and AIDS fatalities; the madcap Mythic brings us gods with eternal life and dead souls eternally damned to hell.
Would it be too much to hope for in an inclusive and progressive school curricula LGBT history get its due and that the telling be as compelling and perspective-shaping as it is in Unbreakable? Enter the talented, versatile creator of scores heard on and off Broadway, Andrew Lippa. If they asked him, he could write a book, to paraphrase the old Rodgers & Hart song. Well, he hasn't written a history textbook exactly. In fact, this isn't even a musical stage play with a book. It's more of a song cycle, written for chorus and soloists, or a series of musical vignettes whose characters range from the familiar, like Gertrude Stein, to anonymous victims of the devastation of AIDS. Heretofore unsung heroes now sing, thanks to their being brought to musical life here, and those whose orders of expulsion from schools and government jobs might have been kept in the shadows get the unforgiving glare of the spotlight.
Tone is of the essence in an endeavor considering the scope of the last 100 years of incidents and attitudes revolving around what was once spoken of by some as "the love that dare not speak its name" until people felt more empowered to speak up, ACT UP, and stand up and be counted. Despite justifiable anger, one would hope to avoid an overly scolding or affronted tone or a self-pitying one, any of which could be distancing if the target audience is to include those who most need consciousness-raising. Preaching to the choiror in this case, actually preaching by the choir, as the piece was commissioned for and is performed by a gay men's choruswould have a limited impact.
While never meek, apologetic or letting persecutors and bigots off the hook, the work lets their actions speak for themselves, suggesting an awareness that any commentary or "J'accuse!" moments would be unnecessary overkill. Plus, there are a few splashes of sass and fun to lighten the understandably serious moods and the formality and precision that can come with unison choral singing.
And what fine, disciplined and elegant vocal work there is to behold, with some freer, bolder vocalizing from soloists. Impressively (but not surprisingly to those of us lucky enough to have witnessed him don his performer hat before), composer-lyricist-conceiver Andrew Lippa bites into his characters with distinct determination and lets fly. This is the case whether he is energetically embodying John F. Kennedy's ultra-devoted gay best friend from teen school days through the White House years, living in "The Room Next Door," a crusading psychiatrist overzealously advocating for gay conversion through therapy ("Purple Menace"/"The Happy Homosexual"), or in his other appearances upping the ante for energy and role-modeling excellent diction, too.
Mr. Lippa's association with musicalizing LGBT history with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, whose premiere of the piece is captured in this invaluable live recording from June of last year, is not a new one. He previously gifted them (and audiences) with I Am Harvey Milk, recalling their city's openly gay politician. With so many other people and time periods to pursue, it is therefore not surprising that Milk is not revisited here, and it may surprise some that there is no selection among the 14 tracks that is devoted to the New York City Stonewall riots marking a 50th anniversary this June, although the sensibilities of protests and gay pride are hardly absent. Thus, a rallying cry in the form of a march might be redundant and obvious. More dramatically effective and surprising is the use of stirring martial beats in melody and orchestrations, redolent of loving patriotism, to accompany American government edicts that prevented equal rights and allowed firings due to sexual orientation.
The orchestra seems to be asked to take a back seat to the vocals, getting precious little time on their own, relegated to "just accompaniment" rather than truly sharing the musical weight. Listening a second and third time, their nuances and architecture can be appreciated more noticeably. Initial hearings, for me, meant that the singing commanded my attention and the handy booklet with all the lyrics was sometimes needed to be sure I was correctly absorbing all the words. Live recordings can have their less-than-perfect patches in clarity and balance. Conductor Tim Seelig deserves credit for a challenging task well done. I admire this ambitious work in its intents and results, although here and there my attention wandered and I became impatient with instances of more repetition and echoing of lines than I like. But I think some of that generally comes with choral-writing/performing territory. And a brief section counting down of "41" early AIDS deaths is apparently far more visually impactful with the choristers, one by one, turning their backs to mark each death, something lost, of course, in the auditory experience.
Indeed, the chorus has arguably its most potent turns in three pieces which address the discovery, decimation, and partial triumph over the disease. Wisely, things end with hopeful, inspiring, life-affirming radiance that feel satisfying and cathartic without seeming pat or tacked on to dry post-downer tears. Certainly, this large men's chorus is ready, willing, and able, with numerous escapes from the stentorian, "stouthearted men" vibe and generalized attitudes to show more shaded emotions. And some get more than fleeting solo lines to really shine.
While there may be strength in numbers, the guest soloists in this show show the power of one. Like the composer-lyricist when he steps up, they dominate their own set pieces with panache, rising to the occasions: Britney Coleman, right off the bat in this chronologically arranged cavalcade, makes a vibrant case for activist Jane Addams and makes a splash as spunky activist "Sylvia" [Rivera] near the end. Lisa Vroman is fine as the aforementioned Miss Stein, richly vocalizing about herself and her lover as more than "Just a Woman." Marcus J. Paige strikingly portrays Martin Luther King Jr.'s colleague Bayard Rustin, calling for equality for "All People" and in "Already Dead," as an exposed and expelled university student whose despair led to suicide, his character's pain is palpable wrenching.
Co-commissioned by several gay choruses, Unbreakable will be performed by groups throughout this spring and next spring, most recently in Birmingham and Charlotte next up. Meanwhile, Andrew Lippa's works big and small, including A Little Princess and Big Fish, and big themes for big choruses are of no little significance, as they continue to be performed throughout the country. And there's undoubtedly more to look forward to from Unbreakable's unstoppable scribe.
Whether or not it's hyperbolic to state that "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," there's no arguing that there's plenty of fury to go around in the musical Mythic, much of which is set in Hell. There's no place like the home numerous musical theatre writers have made for themselves in shows that take us down there, inspired by mythologywitness the currently playing Hadestown, the recent Jasper in Deadland, and Christmas in Hell, more than one Orpheus & Eurydice and Sondheim's The Frogs. Originally titled Persephone (sharing its old title with yet another musical adaptation), after the eventual queen of the underworld, its central female character, Mythic makes its own special path to Hell an audacious one, with sass galore.
The playful time warp juxtaposition of tale and tone are summarized by the set-up printed in large letters in the booklet: "The Place: Ancient Greece. The Time: Now." Choosing a musical genre, attitude, and raison d'etre in visiting a well-trod road, composer/orchestrator Oran Eldor and lyricist/bookwriter Marcus Stevens steer far away from both golden age musical comedy and Offenbach's comic opera Orpheus in the Underground and anything else that doesn't rock out. For better (it's undeniably different and fun) or worse (well, it's kinda noisy), they look to contemporary youth-dominated pop that struts its stuff, stuffed with fast beats, wailing electric guitars, and some shrieky vocals. The throbbing thunderbolts of sound and flashing electricity in the air can't all be blamed on Zeus, god of thunder, etc., as he's portrayed as relatively calm in this storm.
If you can't get past cacophony mixed with "Valley girl" characterizations and other brash silliness and you think all that will make your head spin to headache proportions, then you'll miss a lot of worthy stuff that lies beyond what might overwhelm it. The music and performance styles are perhaps too successful as pastiche, but try hearing it more as adopting characteristics of a style for the purposes of parody and a tongue-very-firmly-in-cheek parade of wackiness. In short, Mythic is a guilty pleasure.
The very game, glib cast members give the characters lots of gusto and spirit, hopscotching between no-holds-barred hostility and goofy commentary. Vocals by Georgie Westall and Genevieve McCarthy recall recent "pop princess" hit-makers as, respectively, Persephone and Aphrodite, teeny-bopper shallowness in shrill sheen firmly in place. Daniella Bowen as power mom/godess-non-grata Demeter provides some balance in maturity, but isn't a shrinking violet in energy level, despite the character's generational seniority (one can imagine her as one of the lively middle-aged Mamma Mia! women). Tim Oxbrow is an entertainingly brooding Zeus, bemoaning family dysfunction and his low approval ratings. And, in the key role of the underworld's head honcho, Hades, Michael Mather is an all-stops-out swaggering, commanding force to reckoned with.
What shines brightest is the abandon on all fronts. There is cleverness in the smug/smart lyrics and included dialogue, as well as craft, with crisp rhyming and an entertaining self-aware winking when casual, colloquial verbiage is assigned to larger-than-life (or larger-than-death) characters. Examples: Hades in "Dark Damaged Soul," protests, "About last night/ That's so not me/ I don't do feelings"; in the lament about being grossed out, economically titled "Ew!," Aphrodite "I'm not a delicate flower/ Like, I'm a god with some power."
The seven-member Greek chorus (it comes with the theatrical territory, naturally) serves as back-up echoing, narration, and a bunch of dead souls reinforcing the protagonists' plights and pleas. Immortal, powerful gods are often presented more as down-to-earth parents vexed by their rebellious offspring (and vice-versa). Surprisingly, there's even a little sweetness near the end with an especially attractive song about finding "Beauty in the Darkness." And, verging on sentimental feel-good anthem territory, "I Will Be Your Home" seeks its balm-like, sobering perspective. But by and large, subtlety and tenderness are dwarfed by the roaring and rambunctious conceits of the over-the-top rock and (steam) roll attack.
Students of musical theatre structures and formulae will note that there are nods to tradition. Folks state and justify their goals and confront each other in defiant numbers. Encouragement for someone to change comes in a persuasive, uplifting number (here, a very cute, bubbly, but nevertheless convincing "You'd Be Surprised"). Persephone's yearning to find "My Own Place in the Pantheon" is really a classic "I want" song to establish the goal of a central figure and could be a first cousin to the equally restless search by the title character in Pippin to find his "Corner of the Sky." Here, the words look skyward, too ("You say your sky is clearest...It's not a sky I call my own"). Sure, some of the wordsmithing opts for more obvious (or, more charitably, inevitable and irresistible) targets (using the words "myth" and "hell" either literally or figuratively to underline the other, e.g., a number called "Not a Chance in Hell"), but the amusement level is high.
Leave it to musical theatre to prove once again that old stories can be revisited and revisited and still find something new under the sun. Or, in this case, mostly under the earth. Mythic, with a recent London run, is fated to have a happy afterlife.