Adam (Light in the Piazza) Guettel’s1998 collection of songs based on myths and Christian hymns has been molded into play-form by director Elizabeth Lucas and is being staged at The Prospect Theater.
Ms. Lucas had added very little dialogue and a thin storyline centering on a nuclear family. The set (which I did not recognize until the action suggested it) is an attic, and the contents/props are used to drive the narrative. The matriarch (Linda Balgord) spends the 90 minutes of the play in the attic remembering her life, although we learn about her children’s lives, but not much about hers.
The play opens with a man (Bob Stillman) in a row boat being pushed onto the stage. He starts to sing to his soon to be wife (Balgord.) And he has a body mike. As does the entire cast. In a 70-seat theatre. It is disorienting to realize this in the same moment one is processing a man being pushed in a row boat. Surely there could be a less jarring start than the juxtaposition of these production extremes? The microphones will continue to distract throughout the 20 songs. However, the five member orchestra is not amplified and is positively lovely. The disorientation is not mitigated by Stillman’s song. Forgive me, but I could not get the image of Michael Bolton out of my head. (During other numbers I had thoughts of St. Elmo’s Fire and Shenandoah.)
The story, as it were, is that husband meets wife, they have a daughter (Anika Larsen) and son (Lucas Steele) who may or may not be twins. Ms. Larsen and Mr. Steele are absolutely wonderful to watch. Ms. Larsen is layered actress with the voice, if you’ll pardon the expression, of an angel. Fortunately she is given the two songs you would want to hear again. Life Is But A Dream and How Can I Lose You? are ideal musical theatre songs. I suspect they were not part of the 1998 concert, as they are so very different from the myth and hymn themed songs. As the daughter she has the clearest of story lines. Mr. Steele’s storyline is almost as clear, and he is equally compelling and of great voice. The mother (Balgord) mostly performs pantomime throughout, and is quite watchable. She has a presence that can not and should not be ignored. Not everyone in the cast is suited to the production making it more difficulty to follow. Many (if not most) of the songs are out of these performers’ range.
Many dramatic devices are employed, including a two-minute ballet, simulated ocean a la Small House of Uncle Thomas, unplanned pregnancy, interracial homosexual romance, suicide, dementia, and a gospel number. I don’t think a religious or mythical theme need stand in the way of a strong dramatic storyline. Several years ago, I saw a wonderful example of an engaging myth-centric musical in Hercules in High Suburbia. What is probably far more challenging, is to find a narrative for songs written for concert. It is a cart before the horse style of book writing, and without a good book, you’ve got a concert.
Seeing incandescent musicals, such as Light In The Piazza, is one of the great joys of life. But there is much to gain from seeing productions as they find their form. As a workshop, Myths and Hymns provides much to consider. If you find musical theatre intriguing, you might just want to see this show.