BWW Reviews: Kennedy Center's World Premiere Musical ORPHIE AND THE BOOK OF HEROES is Pure Delight

Ah, a world premiere musical that's not wholly based on a movie or book. The sound of those words is like music to my admittedly musical theatre geeky ears. A John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts commissioned piece for its Theatre for Young Audiences division, Orphie and the Book of Heroes is smart, funny, original, and bursting with potential.

With assistance from Michael Kooman's music and Christopher Dimond's book and lyrics, we are quickly immersed into the world of Orphie (Lauren Du Pree), a young orphaned girl in ancient Greece that Homer (Christopher Bloch) has taken under his wing to raise as his own. Although she's a major fan of the successful Homer's stories and the mythical heroes he's created - not to mention the man himself - she's dismayed to find that there's one kind of story he has not written: one that features a female heroine. When Homer's very existence is put into jeopardy - thanks to the diabolical Hades (Thomas Adrian Simpson in one of several roles) - she learns that the story that she's in search of is one that she can write herself. She becomes the heroine intent on saving her beloved guardian. Though she meets a variety of Greek heroes along the way who have power and pizazz in spades, she soon realizes that she must rely on her own inner strength - the strength she probably didn't know she had - to achieve the end goal.

Dimond is enormously successful in weaving in familiar characters in ancient Greek tales into his story in an unforced and coherent way. Adults in the audience, familiar with this literature base, are likely to appreciate the references to and appearances by mythical creatures like the Sirens (Samuel Edgerly, Paul Scanlan and Evan Casey), but also poets like Euripides (Evan Casey). Yet, at the same time, he's able to ensure the story is also of interest to the younger set (as a note, the show is recommended, per Kennedy Center, for ages 9 and up). The balance achieved is really commendable.

An abundance of physical comedy, males dressed as females, colorful and detailed costumes (Timm Burrow) and sets (Tony Cisek), catchy and fun music from Kooman are just some of the elements that make it so that even if the littlest of theatregoers don't quite have an appreciation for Greek mythology, they will likely find the production enjoyable and perhaps even learn something in the process. One of the great messages that I particularly appreciated was the idea of gender equality and female empowerment. While this is a central theme of the show, it does not come off as so preachy that we veer into 'after school special' territory.

If I had one criticism of Dimond's book is that some of the scenes with Orphie meeting Greek heroes as she 'writes' her own story do drag on a bit too long and are, in some cases, rather repetitive. While Samuel Edgerly (as Hermes, among other characters) on skates is impossible to resist watching in one of the offending scenes - featuring a strong musical number "Orphie, Go Home" - the situations Orphie and Hermes encounter tread into 'been there, done that' territory after a few minutes. Several - albeit crucial - scenes with the exasperated Persephone (Gia Mora), while amusing at first rely on the same jokes several times to the point where it's like one is being hit over the head by the fact that she, like Orphie, is in search of something different.

Nonetheless, I admire the fact that this book has a strong start, a definite middle, and ending - something that's not always the case with children's theatre pieces. Likewise, kudos to Dimond for ensuring that character development is not sacrificed in the name of keeping those children raised on video games with three second attention spans, entertained.

Kooman - whose strong ear for melody first came to my attention in the duo's debut album Out of Our Heads featuring an array of Broadway talent - also makes a strong contribution to the success of this show. One thing that stands out is although every melodic phrase he uses is catchy, the music doesn't sound like music expressively written for a kids show, nor is it particularly derivative. With this point, I'd like to stress that I don't mean to suggest that music written for children's theatre is inherently of a lesser quality, but there's something to be said about trained and talented musical theatre composers providing the music for children's theatre rather than someone who simply dabbles in composing while also writing children's plays. The attention to melodic detail is definitely there in this case. I also appreciate that Kooman employs a variety of styles - from jazz and pop, to the traditional splashy Broadway-like song and dance number. Of his varied musical numbers, "Story to Tell" and "Misery" are among the strongest offerings melodically.

The small cast of seven charged with bringing 21 characters to life under the subtle yet purposeful direction of Joe Calarco - as well as musical direction from Jenny Cartney - is also a key ingredient for the success of this show. While I did feel that Lauren Du Pree lacked some vocal control and was prone to screeching rather than singing at times during the performance I saw, one has to admire her infectious energy, youthful exuberance, and ability to capture Orphie's eager and inquisitive personality. Thomas Adrian Simpson has a suitable villainous edge as Hades and displays impressive song-and-dance skills as he took on the splashy "Misery" with reckless abandon. His Hades has personality in spades.

Bloch's calm and mature presence as Homer grounds the fanciful story and Evan Casey, Paul Scanlan, and Samuel Edgerly bring the humor to every scene they're in. Some of the strongest tenors Washington, DC has to offer, it's a treat hearing them sing as a trio in numbers like "To Be a Siren." Casey also has a standout moment as Heracles. Brimming with self-confidence, his smarmy and self-indulgent take on "He's the Man" proves to be a highlight. Gia Mora, in a nice return to the DC musical theatre stage, rounds out the ensemble and makes a strong impression as Persephone.

All in all, this is a solid offering from Kennedy Center and I hope that the venerable performing arts institution continues to offer these commissioned world premiere pieces. It's a nice addition to the DC theatre scene.

Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission.

"Orphie and the Book of Heroes" plays at the Kennedy Center's Family Theatre - 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through February 25, 2014. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.

Photo: By Scott Suchman (Lauren Du Pree and Christopher Bloch pictured)


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