BWW Reviews: Bit of a Stretch Theatre Company's MYTHS AND HYMNS is an Artful Concert
Imagine a darkly ambient realm where angular architecture rises from The Shadows and is adorned with three half ovals curtained in sheer white fabric. In this simplistically austere setting, every surface is painted black and gives the impression of some ambiguous but wholly recognizable cabaret. Out of the ether, six shapes emerge. In an assortment of solos and group pieces, these figures sing intensely haunting and puzzling music. Some songs are rigorously jazzy and mesmerizingly chromatic, leaping through major and minor chords with seemingly crazed affectation. Other songs are tuneful and familiar, playing off of bluesy gospel traditions that are tinged with pop sensibilities. This is the world that Adam Guettel, most widely known for the 2005 Tony Award winning musical THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, and Bit of a Stretch Theatre Company have created with the Houston premiere of MYTHS AND HYMNS.
With Richard Rodgers as his great grandfather, it is no surprise that Adam Guettel had a musical upbringing and is involved with the art form of music composition. Often Adam Guettel sonically experiments with musical forms, creating aural landscapes that are simultaneously jarring and sumptuously beautiful. This is especially apparent in the overture for MYTHS AND HYMNS as he moves between unnerving dissonance and fully formed major chords. Presenting the song-cycle as a staged cabaret, Bit of a Stretch Theatre Company deeply digs into the score to expose Adam Guettel's ideas about human relationships, whether they are our interior relationships with our own selves, exterior relationships with others, or the relationships we form with our faith.Now known as MYTHS AND HYMNS, the song cycle premiered under the title of SATURN RETURNS: A CONCERT at The Public Theatre in 1998. In 2012, The Prospect Theater Company presented the premiere of Elizabeth Lucas' narrative treatment of the piece at The West End Theatre. Her minimal book was not well received by critics. As can be expected, the show has reverted back to a concert form without the constraints of any narrative and through plot. This gives directors an unprecedented amount of freedom as they consider options for staging the song cycle. In this production, Emma Martinsen keeps her staging nicely naturalistic. No movement seems forced or out of place contextually. Her most obvious choices occur as arms slowly flap in wing-like motions during "Icarus." Every other movement has a freshness to it that makes it seem more adlibbed in the moment than planned or rehearsed.
The best attribute of Bit of a Stretch Theatre Company is that Houston audiences never know what to really expect. Musical Director Wiley DeWeese will not be doing OKLAHOMA with this group. Instead, he finds fiendishly hard and impressive pieces of musical theatre to bring to Houston stages. For MYTHS AND HYMNS, his keen Musical Direction ensures that orchestra and vocalists are extremely well rehearsed and perform the challenging score without any discernable flaws or imperfections.
Emma Martinsen has cast six extraordinary vocalists for the show. Each one is put through the ringer as Adam Guettel writes convoluted and complex music that essentially maneuvers each vocalist through the vocal Olympics. Eduardo Tercero's imaginative and charismatic tenor instrument is well utilized on numbers like "There's a Land" and "Awaiting You." Tamara Siler's rendition of "There's a Shout" is a showstopping gospel anthem that delights with abundant energy and faultless charm. Hunter Frederick deftly conquers tricky passages to create alluring music on numbers like "Icarus" and "Hero and Leander." Brad Zimmerman's take on "Sisyphus" is engaging and humorous. Abby Seible lends her gorgeous and well-trained soprano instrument to craft extravagant aural beauty on numbers like "Migratory V" and "Come to Jesus." Erin Cressy opens the piece with a plaintively quiet tune, but she is most memorable with her enchanting version of "How Can I Lose You?" As an ensemble the whole group sparkles on pieces like "Link," "The Great Highway," and "At the Sounding," but their cheerful and fascinatingly conversational performance of "Every Poodle" is a highlight of the evening.Lighting Design plays off the black set and white curtains to dazzlingly illuminate the stage in washes of colors that play into the emotional nature of the songs. Likewise, costuming is kept to basic colors, only using blacks, greys, a crème colored sweater, and a light blue shirt. This lets the lighting cleverly transform the hues of the clothing worn on stage.
The only impediment to last night's press preview was the Sound Design. At the top of the show, the music coming from the live orchestra overshadowed quieter vocals, even with amplification. As the performance progressed, the leveling issue seemingly corrected itself. I feel confident that for tonight's official opening performance, this misstep will be entirely corrected.
Adam Guettel's MYTHS AND HYMNS is sure to challenge audiences because it requires them to internalize its weighty themes and musical motifs in quick succession. Without a through plot or narrative, the show moves from song to song without hesitation. Also, there is no guidance as to how we are expected to interpret the numbers. Like a painting by Wassily Kandinsky or Jackson Pollack, the beauty in the piece is in the eye, or in this case ear, of the beholder. No answers are given. The riddles presented are gifts that each audience member can unravel and derive meaning from as they see fit.
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes with no intermission.
Bit of a Stretch Theatre Company's production of MYTHS & HYMNS runs August 8-13,2013 at the HSPVA Black Box Theater, 4001 Stanford Street, Houston, 77006. For more information and tickets, please visit http://bitofastretch.org.
Photos by Betty Marie Muessig. Courtesy of Bit of a Stretch Theatre Company.
Tamara Siler & Company
Eduardo Tercero & Hunter Frederick.