nytheatre.com review by Nicole Higgins
February 26, 2009
Coming, Aphrodite! is the musical adaptation of a novella of the same name written by Willa Cather in 1920 about Eden Bower, a young on-the-make actress new to New York City, and Don Hedger, a Village artist of the Bohemian dog-owning sort. It's the story of an unlikely love affair that could only happen in this brief window in the trajectory of both their lives. And it's set to music! Which should make the bones of Ms. Cather happy as she wrote many stories about musicians and artists and the personal sacrifices they make in pursuit of their ideals. When I first heard there was a Willa Cather adaptation taking the stage I figured it was about time. Her stories are juicy with interesting characters.
Director-writer Mary Fulham sets her adaptation in New York circa 1983, a legendary time (the early '80s) for Broadway and the most dynamic (except for now of course) since vaudeville's last true decade, the 1920s. I imagine the text must have been updated to evoke the period that gave birth to Cats, Dreamgirls, Flashdance, Fame, and A Chorus Line (the movie), some of which are referenced within it; some of which are still inspiring the youth of today to become struggling artists.
Costume designer Ramona Ponce takes full advantage of the period, giving us an Eden Bower in a shiny pink polyester leotard, lemon yellow high-waisted pants, and red red pumps. The scene design by Jim Boutin uses negative space with a signature 1980s cartoon blow-up twist, keeping things simple. The shadow puppets by Spica Wobbe are beautiful and sometimes naughty, but I found myself distracted by the integration of them.
All at once the opening song, written by Paul Foglino with music by Mark Ettinger, filled me with hope for the youthful dreams of the characters. The level of commitment from the entire cast is wonderful. Greg Henits and Liz Kimball both perform admirably as Don Hedger and Eden Bower respectively. Getting a love affair between opposites to gel isn't easy; this one strikes just the right note. I mean, we all know that the aggressively blonde actress will hook up with the shy voyeur artist, but we hope it won't be too contrived. And it wasn't. I believed!
However, some of the most poignant moments are between Clayton Dean Smith as Caesar, the dog, and his master (Don Hedger). Truly he was in danger of stealing the entire show with his proper bow tie, limited vocabulary, and utterly doggish devotion. When he sang "I am already feeling alone" because his master had found a girl, my heart broke.
My favorite line from the entire show, "It's cheese...but it's tasty!" is perfectly delivered/sung in a compromising position by Anne Gaynor as Molly, a Coney Island burlesque showgirl (she also plays surly landlady Miss Folly). It got the biggest laugh of the night from an audience which seemed unsure if this was supposed to be a comedy. The quote comes from "Cheap Thrills," a song that comments on the pleasures of low brow entertainment.
So boy meets girl in New York. It's one of the oldest stories we love to see again and again. Having read the novella and expected the 1920s, I was surprised by how well the story translates, but it's timeless, really, I'm sure it's happening out there right now.