Myths and Hymns
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
February 4, 2012
Since its debut at the Public Theatre in 1998, Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns (né Saturn Returns) has accrued the cult status that belongs to many little-known musicals. Aficionados and historians of the genre are quick to note that this heretofore unconnected song cycle, based on Greek myths and religious hymnals, stacks up considerably well against his more prominent works, namely Floyd Collins and The Light in the Piazza, and the piece in its original form lives on as a recording.
With Guettel’s blessing—yet little of his input—Elizabeth Lucas, a co-founder of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, has taken the score and given it a narrative. This Myths and Hymns, which she's directed for Prospect Theater Company at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew’s West End Theatre, examines the disintegration of a heavily religious (presumably Catholic) family through the flashbacks of an elderly woman, speech-impaired following a stroke.
The woman (Linda Balgord) has locked herself in the attic of her coastal home to escape reality, a caring-but-damaged daughter (Anika Larsen) who can’t take care of her anymore, and an auction the next morning in which the contents of the home will be sold. As the woman explores, she encounters the tokens of her family’s past—a bible, a broken locket, a toy horse, stacks of letters. Memories fly by: her husband’s (Bob Stillman) courtship, and the rifts and irreversible damage caused by religion following her daughter’s abortion and son’s (Lucas Steele) outing.
As a result, the piece become a make-shift jukebox musical. Some of the songs are flexible enough to withstand Lucas’ reordering—for example, the gloriously beautiful “Come to Jesus” is set against the backdrop of a woman’s abortion either way. Others share the common jukebox musical problem: hard-to-avoid contexts that don’t fit the conceit unless uncomfortably shoehorned into the plot. During “Icarus,” a song about a son trying to get past his well-known father, Steele and Stillman literally strap on wings as the son, flying too close to the sun, ends his life. Later, the jaunty “Sisyphus,” (which features lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh) becomes the father’s ode to carrying around the boulder of his son’s death.
The usually reliable Steele has to visibly strain to reach the higher notes; still, he sounds quite lovely on “Saturn Returns,” performed now as a duet with Donnel James Foreman. Stillman gorgeously performs “Hero and Leander,” and “Build a Bridge.” Larsen and Matthew Farcher (as her various boyfriends) are enormously affecting on “Come to Jesus,” and Larsen also scores with “Life is But a Dream” and the moving “How Can I Lose You?” Balgord acts the hell out of her wordless role (mostly opposite Ally Bonino, as a character called “Trickster”), though at least gets one song to explode, “Awaiting You.”
Using the theater’s architecture to their advantage, set designer Ann Bartek, costumer Emily Morgan DeAngelis and lighting designer Herrick Goldman have creatively turned the space into a zone of reality, myth and memory, while Janie Bullard’s tinny sound design makes it seem like the vocals and spotty and tentative 6-member band (led by Katya Stanislavskaya) are miles away.
While the narrative is surprisingly easy to follow, more often than not, the production gets bogged down by its seriousness, and the result, simply, is boredom. The opportunity to hear Guettel’s score live is never something to pass up, but it just might be more effective to let it stand on its own.