The Anthem – a Radical Retelling of Ayn Rand’s Classic
An extravagant, campy take on a heavy-handed Ayn Rand tome.
By Joel Benjamin
The Anthem, “a radical retelling of Ayn Rand’s classic novella,” is somewhat true to the spirit of Rand’s heavy handed 1937 tome. True, this show is, at best, a cartoony treatment of the source material but Gary Morgenstein (book), Jonnie Rockwell (music) and Erik Ransom (lyrics) have filled the show with a campy charm all its own. The Anthem’s best feature is its good-looking and athletic cast who, for a good deal of the show, literally hang off the rafters of the Lynn Redgrave Theater. There’s not an ounce of body fat among them. Even the elder statesman of the cast, Randy Jones of Village People fame, is in great shape, sings with a strong baritone and keeps up with director Rachel Klein’s disco-tinged choreography alongside the “kids.”
The Anthem takes place many centuries in the future in a dystopian, totalitarian state, the Grid, led by First Citizen Pandora (Jenna Leigh Green, a cool beauty with just the right hauteur) and the Second Citizen Tiberius (Mr. Jones, ominous in his black leather uniform). The Grid citizens have to obey arbitrary rules, including taking jobs they don’t want, or suffer the consequences. Inadvertently, Prometheus (Jason Gotay), a young man paired by government fiat with the librarian Hera (Remy Zaken, a little dynamo) discovers a portal to another world, the Forest, where emotions, individuality and creativity are valued. Rising from what turns out to be an ancient Subway station, the Forest clan revolts against all that the Grid stands for. Prometheus falls for the Forest’s leader, the Amazon-like Athena, all arrayed in golden cloth (Ashley Kate Adams, in a full-bodied, sensual performance). The Forest and Athena allow Prometheus to find his inner inventor and to re-evaluate his goals. He dumps Hera who becomes his mortal enemy. In a devilishly funny song, “Strange Bedfellows,” she joins forces with Tiberius to overthrow Pandora who has one too many secrets.
The Anthem pits all these opposing forces against each other in a series of songs and dance sequences that vary from disco to pop to Broadway with a touch of martial arts thrown in for good measure. “The Grid,” the opening number, sets the tone while “The Anthem,” the closing number sums up the new found freedoms. Plot points are magnified through the songs like forbidden books—“Forbidden Library”; “State Sanctioned Love”; Athena’s “Queen of the Forest”; “I Bring Light,” Prometheus’s delight in using his mind to create useful inventions; and “Off the Grid (Secret Tunnel).” There are pretty love songs like “You Are Beautiful” and “Golden One” sung by Prometheus and Athena.
A good deal of the staging, particularly the Cirque du Soleil acrobatics comes across as filler. Although entertaining and eye-filling, these numbers do little but show off the amazing prowess of the performers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but The Anthem would benefit by a bit of judicious paring.
The slick set by Robert Andrew creates a shiny world with long pipes of colored lights, multi-levels, video screens, a disco ball and lots of stuff to hang off of. Ms. Klein’s costumes run the gamut from Star Trek slick to flower child disarray. Ellie Engstom’s videos and props and Candace Carell’s makeup designs keep the giddy, exaggerated tone of this lavish production.
The entire cast, large even by Broadway standards, is in on the joke and work as a unit to keep the energy flowing. They all sing and move well. Standouts include Jamyl Dobson, imposingly tall as the Executioner; Em Grosland, a delightful pixie as Hermes; and Brian Joseph Ferree, one of the aerialists (and co-creator of the aerial staging) whose flips and twists were breathtaking. Jason Gotay’s passionate Prometheus was the emotional lightning rod of the show while his two love interests, Ms. Adams and Ms. Zaken created colorful and powerful women.
The Anthem is an eyeful, an extravagant production that is tongue-in-cheek funny with just enough political philosophy to keep it from floating away into a campy Neverland.
*Photos: Michael Blase
The Anthem (through July 6, 2014)
Culture Project’s Lynn Redgrave Theater
45 Bleecker St. (Between Lafayette St. & The Bowery)
New York, NY
Tickets and Information: 866-811-4111 or www.TheAnthemMusical.com
Running Time: 2 Hours 15 minutes, one intermission