The sun has once again set on the age of the gods as Blackbird Theater’s gloriously ambitious “Myth: A New Musical” closed its world premiere run today. But like other creations in Nashville’s blossoming theater garden this show is further proof that the dawn of a hopeful new age is upon us.
The large-scale production that turned Hillsboro High School’s ample auditorium into an ancient world of Greek cities and Mt. Olympus was a like brilliant bolt of lightning from Zeus himself. There’s nothing that doesn’t work in this well-thought-out and sharply-executed show, though the story could still be satisfyingly told with a few less subplots and comic asides. Yes, it was three hours long, and it’s obvious but somewhat sad that most contemporary attention spans won’t be wild about that length if – like the company’s “Twilight of the Gods” – it plays outside the Athens of the South.
But for now let’s deal with the past and not ponder the future. The seed for this work was probably sewn a quarter-century ago when a touring company of “Les Miserables” at Tennessee Performing Arts Center turned Lipscomb University student Greg Greene into a committed theater lover. His classmate Wes Driver also became a convert to the footlights, and their friendship has resulted in Blackbird Theater’s 2010 founding and so much more.
Greene and Driver wrote the words while fellow Lipscomb alum Michael Slayton composed the music. They drew on epic tales from ancient Greece, but this tuneful tale of the gods’ fall from their gaudy heights owes as much, if not more, to the modern inspiration of Stephen Sondheim (and possibly a little Stephen Schwartz as well as sprinkles of early Andrew Lloyd Webber with Tim Rice and Les Miz’s Claude-Michel Schönberg for good measure) as it does to Homer and other long-ago storytellers.
The musical (crisply directed by Driver) starts with the 32-member company singing “What Story Shall We Tell” that sets the stage à la Sondheim’s “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” And it’s soon followed by a comic contrasting duet called “My Hero” that pits the overly idealistic vision of sweet and spirited but naïve Athenian princess Acacia (an enchanting Corinne Bupp) against the tempered by experience perspective of her worldly handmaiden Tressa (played to deadpan perfection by Darci Wantiez) – that like much of the book and score is understandably geared to 21st Century attitudes:
ACACIA: He’ll be fighting Sphinxes—
TRESSA: Fighting baldness—
ACACIA: Awaiting missions—
TRESSA: Awaiting death.
ACACIA: He’ll be strong as his stallion—
TRESSA: And that’s just his breath.
ACACIA: He’ll be swift as his sword.
TRESSA: And dull as this rod.
ACACIA: My lord.
TRESSA: My god!
ACACIA/TRESSA: My hero!
Such lyrics set the tone for a show that has plenty of humor (Wantiez gets another go at a delicious duet when she and Kristopher Wente’s dashing Apollo have decidedly different reactions to love in “Take Me to the Heavens”). But poignancy is soon the coin of the realm when her arranged marriage to Theban prince Kallisto (the heroically-built Antonio P. Nappo) is scuttled by the selfish machinations of Zeus (played with lusty gusto by David Arnold).
Slayton’s sometimes soaring, sometimes playful score was ably conducted by Music Director Jason Tucker and featured the sublime talents of Celine Thackston on flute, Bobby Shankle on oboe, Leah Stufflebam on French horn, Cassie Shudak on violin, Lindsey Smith-Trostle on cello, Dennis Palmer’s timpani, Scot Corey’s percussion, Adrienne Clark on keyboard and Kelsi Fulton playing piano. Yes, I know there are actually some musicians hanging around the Music City, but my amazement at the ever-high quality of our great quantity of instrumental talents never ceases.
I’ve already noted some of the leading players, who are all terrific, and it’s appropriate to mention others in this well-cast show. Brad Brown, whose deformed Kakisto had more to him than he first appeared to possess; JJ Rodgers, a Hera who had enough of her hubby Zeus’s roving ways; Scott Stewart, who turned in a wonderful onstage double as the foolish Oinophilus and that malevolent master of the underworld Hades while voicing a third character; Will Miranne as Oinophilus’ hapless slave Neomoros; Catherine Birdsong as beautiful goddess Aphrodite and her brother as well as sometime partner-in-crime Hermes brought mischievously to life by Tadd Himelrick; Mallory Gleason Mundy their virtuous sibling Athena; Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva packed a powerful theatrical punch as the Priestess; and wonderful support from Winston Harless, Caroline Davis, Preston Orr and Patrick Kramer among several others.
There’s one actor I’d like to mention before moving on to other elements in the show: Ronnie Meek. Meek played Praxis, the conniving King of Thebes who sees his plans to unite his kingdom and Athens through marriage turn to dust. As with so much of this veteran actor’s work his presence, precision and artistic truthfulness made his performance riveting. Meek, who is also a minister, has filled about every role imaginable on stage and off during his lengthy theatrical career, and at Smyrna’s Springhouse Theatre Company and elsewhere – like his incredible work in Blackbird’s 2012 presentation of “Red” – he is there to serve the story and audiences lucky enough to watch him.
Choreography ties movement to words and notes so the story and its attendant emotions are actively clear. Kari Smith’s dances and Brent Maddox’s fights (with Nappo as onstage fight captain) served as seamless complements to Driver and Greene’s words and Slayton’s notes.
Andy Bleiler’s impressive set bestrode the Hillsboro stage like a colossus. I know the professionals at Blackbird have to make the most out of limited financial and material resources with each show and they accomplished that once again with pieces that conjured Mt. Olympus, caves, banquet halls, the underworld and much more. For the rest, to adapt again from Mr. Shakespeare, “let them on your imaginary forces work” was a good guide to follow.
David Hardy’s lights (operated by Eric Ventress) and DL Freeman’s sound (with Will Scroggins on the board and engineering by Andy Tomlinson) were impeccably designed and called. When those things go wrong, everyone notices, but when they’re seamless they are often taken for granted by audiences and reviewers when they never should be – like other aspects of theater it’s never as easy as it looks, particularly with a big set to light and a large cast to amplify.
Oh, those marvelous costumes by the ethereally talented Hannah Schmidt! The colors, textures, shapes and sizes that made long ago seem like today; bravo. And Aria Durso’s masks, hair and wigs merited the same applause for the great skill and ingenuity with which they were produced. Some love should go Brad Forrister’s way as well for handling props (with special ones courtesy Amy Anstey and Bryan Thornton) for another element that deserves far more notice than it usually gets.
An appreciative nod to the rest of the crew, and special thanks that this grand-scale show had the stage management experience of Kat Hanrahan (assisted by Kaylea Frezza). I know the mind-boggling logistics of this show required the best, and Hanrahan is on that list.
Blackbird Theater should be proud they accomplished this Herculean task. It’s taken several years for this theatrical ambrosia to reach the stage, and my prayer to the gods of tragedy and comedy is that “Myth” has legs beyond Nashville. It’s another gift our diverse and ever-growing arts scene should share with the wider world.
VIDEO: If you haven’t seen it already here’s Nashville Public Television‘s look at this local landmark production while it was still in rehearsals: