A sensational cast, phenomenal choreography, a spectacular production design, and Michael Matthews’s imaginative direction do everything possible to make the most of Cindy Shapiro’s Psyche: A Modern Rock Opera. Unfortunately, the gifted team’s best efforts can’t rescue “Psyche The Musical” from its ponderous libretto, mostly tedious tunes, and lyrics that clunk where they should soar.
For a play, musical, or “modern rock opera” to work, it must first have compelling characters, and though fans of Greek mythology might beg to differ, I find it hard to drum up any interest in protagonists as purely allegorical—and two-dimensional—as Psyche (Soul), Eros (Love, Lust, Sex), and Aphrodite (Love, Beauty).
That Psyche: A Modern Rock Opera is performed without a single spoken word doesn’t help matters since even a sung-through musical as successful as Jonathan Larson’s Rent can prove confusing at first exposure without dialog to tie its songs together. Psyche’s storyline is so bewildering and convoluted that three pages of the playbill are devoted to explaining it, song after song after song after song.
Take for instance Act One’s “Fair,” whose synopsis goes like this: “The Western Wind carries the sisters away. Their envy overtakes them. They aim to convince her that she’s married a monster, but they suspect that he’s actually a god, and if Psyche tries to kill a God, they know she will probably be killed.”
The Greeks may indeed have “had a word for it,” but for most contemporary theatergoers, that word where Psyche: A Modern Rock Opera is concerned is likely to be dull.
It doesn’t help either that Psyche: A Modern Rock Opera tells Psyche’s tale with deadly seriousness in lyrics as leaden as these: “I did not die. I’m still alive. I live.” “Psyche, she goes. Psyche, she goes.” “Monster. Monster. Monster. Monster.”
No wonder, then, that a series of flippant supertitles (“Psyche’s fucked” is probably the tersest and most spot-on of the bunch) end up jarringly at odds with what’s being played out on stage.
A few of Shapiro’s melodies prove catchy, and there’s one standout number, the rocking “Deadly Waters,” sung by evil sisters Trouble and Sorrow, the only characters in Psyche’s overlong two-plus hours with an iota of humor or sass.
Still, for this reviewer at least, there’s very little memorable about the majority of Psyche’s songs, and since there’s one after another after another, the overall effect is stultifying.
Fortunately for those who choose to attend Psyche: A Modern Rock Opera’s World Premiere, some big bucks have gone into bringing Shapiro’s libretto to life, which may be one reason producers Andrew Carlberg, Shapiro, and Jack Wall have managed to round up as sterling a directorial/design team as the talents on display at the Greenway Court Theatre.
At the very least, director Matthews keeps things visually compelling throughout, making the most of scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s ravishing set, Tim Swiss’s Psyche-delic lighting, and Cricket S. Myers’ spectacular sound design.
E.B. Brook’s costumes, a hybrid of the ancient and the modern, are stunners too, with additional snaps going to Michael O’Hara’s myriad properties and Orlando de la Paz’s scenic art.
As for musical director Wall’s live orchestra, it is one of the biggest and best I’ve heard on an intimate L.A. theater stage, and the musical’s orchestrations are sumptuous indeed.
If anything, Psyche: A Modern Rock Opera gives Los Angeles audiences the chance to see Ovation Award-winning choreographer Janet Roston strut her electrifying stuff as never before, since just about every musical number includes dance or movement, and whether modern or jazz or balletic or aerial, Roston aces them all. Whitney Kirk and Nathalie Gaulthier, too, merit deserved oohs and aahs for (respectively) their aerial direction and aerial consultation.
A crème-de-la-crème troupe of dancers—Matthew Domenic D’Amico, Katie Kitani, Philip Dean Lightstone, Nakia Secrest, Neil Taffe, Derrian Tolden, Grace Yoo, and Cynthia Zitter—bring Roston’s inventive, eclectic choreography to breathtaking life, with vocals (D’Amico’s in particular) that make it abundantly clear that the days when dancers danced and singers sang are long gone in today’s triple-threat world.
Last but most definitely not least are Psyche: A Modern Rock Opera’s five terrific stars.
As Psyche, Ashley Ruth Jones reveals stage presence, deeply felt emotion, and above all powerful vocals. Jones’ UCLA Ray Bolger Musical Theatre Class Of 2014 classmate, the charismatic Michael Starr, shows off topnotch acting and vocal chops as well. (That Brooks’s winged-but-shirtless costume shows off Eros’s California surfer tan, biceps, and abs is an added bonus.)
Laura L. Thomas’s gorgeous Aphrodite is another stunner, the blonde beauty reaching the sky-highest B-flat with a crystal-clear belt that never fails to astonish. Benai Alicia Boyd (Sister, Trouble) and Cindy Sciacca (Sister, Sorrow) complete the cast of principals in dual roles that show off their ample talents—and sexy sass—as never before.
Rebecca Eisenberg is associate producer/stage manager. Victoria Chediak and Daniel Crolnel are assistant stage managers.
Jami Rudofsky is casting director and Andy Crocker casting associate.
Ryan Bergmann is assistant director, Michael Quiett assistant choreographer, Jim Lordeman assistant musical director, Lightstone dance captain, Lynne Marie Martens assistant costume designer, Selina Woggerman assistant scenic artist, and Kyree Tittle sound engineer.
A cast and creative team as brilliant as the one behind Psyche: A Modern Rock Opera make a visit to Psycheland far from a complete loss. Still, the director, choreographer, cast, and design team assembled for its World Premiere deserve better material than they have been given to work with here.
Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Blvd., West Hollywood.
August 29, 2014
Photos: Barry Weiss