The Pursuit of Persephone
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
May 13, 2005
Anyone interested in the future of musical theatre should hightail it down to the East Village and catch the Prospect Theater Company’s wonderful new production, The Pursuit of Persephone. Musical aficionados will be heartened to see that it lies, in part, in the capable hands of Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, a talented composer-lyricist-bookwriter-director team who would make several of their musical predecessors—Cole Porter, Comden & Green, Stephen Sondheim—proud of their accomplishments here. It is to their further credit that they load the stage of the Connelly Theatre with an army of up-and-coming talent that is almost comparable to their own.
Based on true events, The Pursuit of Persephone begins in 1937, as the famed novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald is about to lunch with his college sweetheart, Ginevra King, for the first time in twenty years. As Fitzgerald reminisces with the restaurant bartender, Persephone flashes back to Fitzgerald’s college years at Princeton, circa 1915-1917. He and his friends—who include future literary giants Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop (or J.P.)—spend their time socializing, carousing, and trying to woo the Ivy League’s never-ending line of debutantes. They also write and produce plays for Princeton’s legendary Triangle Club, billed as “the oldest collegiate musical-comedy troupe in the nation.” On one of Triangle’s annual cross-country tours, Scott (as Fitzgerald is called by his friends) falls under the spell of debutante heiress Ginevra King, and sets out to win her. Even though they are smitten with each other, Ginevra, who always has an eye on furthering her already considerable social standing, fears that Scott, the child of a working class Midwestern family, will never be able to provide the kind of life that she’s used to. Thus, the wheels are set in motion for what would turn out to be one of the defining events in Fitzgerald’s life. Their romance would become the basis for his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, and Ginevra would later serve as his model for Daisy Buchanan in his most famous work, The Great Gatsby.
If this sounds like a lot to tackle in one show, especially a musical, fear not. Mills and Reichel handle it all with a dexterous craftsmanship. They manage to keep Persephone’s cavalcade of characters, events, and information clear for the audience throughout. Their book, while too long by about ten to fifteen minutes, is still a model of clarity considering everything happening in it. And, Reichel’s fluid direction helps Persephone immensely. She knows exactly where both the physical and thematic focus of every scene is, and how to complement the main action with secondary action (as in large group scenes) without taking away from it. Her work here is marvelous.
Mills’s score is a welcome respite from other new musicals in that it draws inspiration more from old-fashioned Broadway scores (like those by the aforementioned Comden & Green, Porter, and Sondheim, and a host of others) than it does from modern pop music, thereby making Persephone feel and sound more substantial than many other current musical offerings. Mills’s lyrics display a facility for wit, humor, and narrative that will charm audiences and his melodies will make them tap their toes and sway in their seats. There are at least a half dozen standout numbers in Persephone, among which are: “Class,” in which Scott cleverly describes what he has while Edmund and J.P. tell him what he has to attend; “The Black Ball,” a rousing group number about an elite social club Scott and J.P. try to become members of; and “The Blue Slip,” which chronicles Scott’s increasing difficulty in balancing the demands of both the Triangle Club and his homework. Because of the score’s classic nature, Mills forces the cast to adopt more a traditional, straightforward vocal approach (once again, no pop music influence here) that is refreshing to hear. (And, in yet another throwback to a bygone era, The Pursuit of Persephone is completely unamplified. No microphones for the cast or the orchestra: they all get by on the strength of their talent and skill. Hearing the show like this, in an age where one almost never encounters a musical without amplification, makes it feel like a more authentic theatre-going experience.)
The musical numbers are also enhanced Tesha Buss’s wonderful choreography. She understands the strengths (and the limits) of the cast, and never makes them look anything less than terrific. Her inventive dances supplement the story perfectly, but never threaten to overshadow it.
Chris Fuller and Jessica Grove are the perfect ingenue couple as Scott and Ginevra. Both actors have lovely singing voices, and they create a convincing rapport together. David Abeles, Benjamin Sands, and Piper Goodeve all lend ample support as Edmund, J.P., and Scott’s long-suffering friend Marie, respectively. Abeles, especially, shines in two fine numbers: the hilarious “Poseidon Myself,” an example of the Triangle Club’s songwriting prowess; and “Let’s Don’t,” a lovely duet with Goodeve. Daniel Yates also does good work as the Older Scott, who frequents the stage almost the entire show, and manages to speak volumes with his haunted eyes.
Mills and Reichel’s decision to keep the Older Scott around for much of Persephone is a good one because it places the carefree high jinks on stage into a broader, bittersweet historical context. Older Scott looks on the younger versions of himself, his friends, and Ginevra, and experiences the hindsight that comes with time: he laughs, winces, and cries over events that cannot change. He can only stand by, helplessly, and watch his relationship with Ginevra unravel. But, one person’s misery is another person’s gift. The audience watches the Older Scott, and experiences a different kind of hindsight that he never will: we know that all his pain—and happiness—will create one of the most celebrated literary canons of the 20th century.
This is pretty heady stuff for a musical—especially one that, for all its heartbreak and poignancy, is still joyous, fun, and hilarious. It is a measure of Mills and Reichel’s talents that they succeed on all fronts. How many shows can say that? The Pursuit of Persephone can. Which is more than enough reason to run right out and see it.