… a big musical on its way …

Odyssey calls itself an epic musical and it is.  It has the look of a musical headed to Broadway and — with some strengthening — it will get there. Meanwhile, it’s tremendous fun!

First of all, the set is gorgeous.  The show is playing in a fairly small theater but the stage is vast and the set uses all of it in a seemingly serendipitous, free flowing way to suggest the sea, the islands in it, the voyages across it, and the high realm of the gods and the earthy realm of humans.  It’s a set that conveys the complexity and exhilaration of existence – it’s wonderful, and keeps you on the journey even when occasionally the play gets a little waterlogged.  Nets, sails and figureheads — it has lots of blue and turquoise and one wants to be there.  (You can even get the flavor in the design of their web page.)

The show begins with a little boy reading the first lines of The Oydyssey where Homer invokes the Muse to sing to him Odysseus’ tale:  “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course … ” and the singing begins.  It’s very moving … and it ends with the boy and the book, too.  A beautiful frame.

The story takes Odysseus from the time he is a boy, and then a king of Ithaca, married to Penelope, through to the war at Troy, and like the Odyssey, the weight of the story is on Odysseus’ long voyage home, when he’s “driven time and again off course” into a serious of famous and wonderfully inventive adventures.  We visit the Cyclops’ cave, resist the Sirens (though the rest of Odysseus’ crew meets its end there), visit Circe’s magical island, and sojourn with the seductive nymph Calypso.

We also voyage with Odysseus through some adventures not part of Odysseus’ story, in particular a lengthy episode in which, because Athena has fallen in love with Odysseus, Zeus and the other gods offer him the gift of eternal life in a kind of rapturous Age of Aquarius scene.

The music is generic musical comedy, not very original, the only exception I noticed being the appropriately beautiful music of “Siren Song,” but the lyrics are often witty, intriguing and hilarious.  The musical number “Nobody,” a riff from Homer’s joke about how Odysseus tricked the Cyclops, is a show stopper [Odysseus told the Cyclops his name was “Nobody” so after Odysseus had stuck a poker in the monster’s one eye, the Cyclops cried out in useless vengeance “Nobody injured me!”]

For a stronger musical Odyssey, the character of Odysseus and the narrative as a whole need to be more consistent, and the hero less dithering.  Uncertainty may be a strength, but Odysseus looks inept rather than heroic in scenes such as that where his Ithacans look to him as their King to ease their current miseries, and the “clever Odysseus” has no resources to help them and not a clue what to do.  One senses in this instance the reason for including a crisis that isn’t in the Odyssey was to justify a very good song with a contemporary ring to it, “Everything to Fear.”  Even within this show’s narrative, it’s inconsistent because we see that Odysseus was in fact very rich – it takes decades for Penelope’s free loading suitors to make a dent in his grand estate, and still there’s plenty left.  This inconsistency among others weakens the believability and impact.

Other narrative decisions, such as the interloping “real life is better for mortals than eternal life” episode and related themes that run through the show seem governed by the desire to put across a world view.  The philosophy is trendy-murky and doesn’t derive from the characters.

There’s no reason why a creative team in 2011 working with the story of Odysseus that goes back to many centuries BC, have to include the most famous incidents in the Odyssey (although those who chose to come might be disappointed not to see what they expected — OK, fact is, I missed his sojourn with Nausicaa a lot!)

And I suppose (though, look, Homer did create a really great fundamental story, mess with it at your peril) that they’re free to include incidents that the Muse never got around to telling the Bard.  But such interpolations, like everything else in the story, need to flow within a consistent world view led by a consistently and plausibly developed character.

The plot of the musical hinges on Athena’s crush on Odysseus, but perhaps we could be given a little more clue as to why she is the goddess of wisdom.

It’s a big cast — 28 performers and several have multiple roles, and they’re very professional and charismatic.  Josh A. Davis as Odysseus leads the way through with strong acting and singing and goes a long way toward creating the sense of the whole.  Emma Zaks is a vigorous, adorable Athena.  Janine Divita brings a strong dramatic voice to Penelope.  Eddie Korbich is so funny as Poseidon you want to hug him!

Why mike these and other good singers, especially in a small theater?  They’d sound better without the electronic barrier.

Odyssey the Musical has begun its voyage: avoiding the self-indulgent seductions of the Sirens, chances look good for its making it to Broadway but as it launches from its off-off Broadway port, it’s already great fun.  It’s a short run — this time — but try to see it!!

Odyssey plays at American Theater of Actors on West 54th Street in Manhattan through October 30.

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