By Ron Fassler . . .
With its origins in Greek epic poetry, the clever new musical Penelope: Or How the Odyssey Was Really Written, is using the advertising slogan: “Greece is the Word.” Funny, but there’s also truth in advertising in that statement. What book and lyric writer Peter Kellogg and composer Stephen Weiner have joyfully concocted is an anachronistic take on the fabled tale of Penelope and Odysseus, boasting a pastiche score that spans decades of popular music.
As he did with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in his prior musical, Desperate Measures (produced by the York Theatre Company in a 2017 production), Kellogg revels in updating oldies with new spins. Teamed this time with composer Stephen Weiner, whose tunes are diversely melodic, the comedic tone is set hilariously by the very first song “She’s Gonna Be Mine.” Aided by brilliant harmonies, it is sung by a quartet of charming and handsome young men (David LaMarr, Jacob Simon, George Slotkin and Sean Thompson) who comfortably mimic the sounds of multiple eras like doo-wop and the Bee Gees. And each time they break out in barbershop, as they do with this opening number, the audience goes wild (credit to Steve Delehanty, whose bio mentions his 58-year membership in the Barbershop Harmony Society). What a welcome change to hear singing so well-executed—and without straw boaters and striped jackets.
Considering this is a riff on The Odyssey, the theater has a series of large posters in its lobby to help fill in some of the background—even if reading them prior to the performance caused me anxiety, with memories of high school flooding back. “Will this be on the test???” Fears were quickly allayed when it was immediately apparent that enjoying what was being spoofed would be easy—a tribute to good storytelling. To that end, since Homer is only the presumed author of The Odyssey, Kellogg’s conceit is that credit could conceivably be owed to Penelope, wife of Odysseus, thus supplying a feminist take on what went down in 8th century BC. This power-behind-the-throne perspective ignites the ageless and all-too-familiar efforts of men to stifle women’s voices.
With Odysseus lost for twenty years, pressure is on Penelope (Brittany Nicole Simpson) to find a man to lead Greece (because how can a woman do the job, right?). Presented with five suitors, all thick-headed, egotistical hangers-on, a contest is demanded to choose a winner after her stalling tactics (reading letters she’s written herself and attributing them to Odysseus), are called out as ingenuine. When, later on, Odysseus (Ben Jacoby) is washed ashore, he conceals his identity and enters the contest himself, disguised as the blind poet Homer (yes, that same Homer). Add to this the dilemma of Telemachus (Philippe Arroyo)—son of Penelope and Odysseus, bereft of a father and insecure as to his place as a potential leader of men—who falls in love with a servant, Daphne (Maria Wirries). Their subplot includes a salute to secondary love stories you can find in every George Abbott musical of the Golden Age of Broadway. To round out the plotting are two other finely-etched characters: one, a nurse, Eurycleia (Leah Hocking); and, the other, the most contentious suitor of the quintet, the brash and ridiculous Antinous (Cooper Howell). Classical structure is always welcome in musicals, if you ask me.
Director/choreographer Emily Maltby stages the show with panache and a deft comedic skill. Guiding an excellent ensemble, its three women are each individually beguiling, beginning with Brittany Nicole Smith, a classically-trained actress who not only has the required bearing and speaking voice to command respect as a queen, but is a superb singer. Maria Wirries is adorable, with a flair for comedy that extends into her songs. And Leah Hocking takes center stage in one number, unleashing a power that must be seen and heard to be believed. I was also taken with Cooper Howell’s Antinous, who suggests a combination of Cyril Ritchard’s Captain Hook and Kevin Kline’s Pirate King.
For a fast-paced, delightfully quirky and terrific new musical, see Penelope: Or How the Odyssey was Really Written. As the company’s Artistic Director, James Morgan, writes in his program notes: “To quote Hadestown, a very different retelling of Greek myth currently playing across town: ‘it’s an old tale from way back when/it’s an old song and we’re gonna sing it again.’ Great stories need to be told again and again, and the best songs never grow old.”
Penelope: Or How the Odyssey was Really Written. Through April 24 at the Theatre at St. Jeans (150 East 76th Street at Lexington Avenue). www.yorktheatre.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg