Greg Hentis and Liz Kimball
in Coming, Aphrodite!
(© Steven Schreiber)
Greg Hentis and Liz Kimball
in Coming, Aphrodite!
(© Steven Schreiber)
In the new musical Coming, Aphrodite!, now playing at La MaMa, Willa Cather's charmingly delicate short story about the romance between two artists gets a brash and somewhat muddled retelling. Cather's tale, set in the early 20th century, focuses on Don (Greg Hentis), a painter, and Eden (Liz Kimball), a singer, who are neighbors in a third floor walkup, and who, after meeting cute want nothing to do with one another. It's not a big surprise that these aspiring artists end up sharing an awkward romance, which is ultimately undermined by their differing views on what constitutes success.

Adapter and director Mary Fulham updates the action to the early 1980s and the change in period does not affect the basic trajectory of the story. But things begin to go awry after the moment when Don first begins to focus on Eden: he discovers that he can see into her rooms via a crack between two doors at the back of his closet. The specific is the same as in Cather, but unfortunately, in the musical, Eden's daily workout (choreographed by Heidi Latsky) looks more like an audition piece for a pole dancer rather than a cardiovascular exercise. And with this, the musical moves from what could be beguiling to simply banal.

Eden's routine might not stand out so much were it not for the fact that, until theatergoers see Kimball's lithe silhouette contorting into suggestive poses, the musical itself is something of a sleepy affair. Fulham has attempted to create a sense of the pair's comings and goings, but because the encounters that the two have in their apartment building's hallways and on the front stoop are so brief, the musical begins to take on something of a race-like quality as the performers circle the large stage to give a sense of time passing between each scene.

The work is further undermined by Fulham's retention of other aspects of the story, which are either not necessarily appropriate for the late 1980s or germane to its progression. The image of pigeons swirling in the sky -- beautiful in the story -- is replicated in the musical with video (created by Lisa Ebersole and Andrew Cahill) to awkward effect. Slightly more successful is a sequence that takes place at Coney Island, where Don and Eden go on a date and see performance artist Molly (multiply-cast Anne Gaynor); but even in this instance, the production missteps again when a cagily-placed burlesque routine unfolds tepidly and tentatively.

Thankfully, there are glimmers of brightness to be found in the show. Composer Mark Ettinger ably delivers a tuneful and diverse score (with lyrics by Paul Foglino) that brings to mind everything from Broadway in its Golden Age to contemporary pop. The shadow puppet design from Spica Wobbe that illustrates a fable that Don tells Eden is beautiful. And, most important, both Hentis and Kimball are incredibly appealing as the young lovers, and even Clayton Dean Smith, playing Don's dog Caesar, evokes some giggles. One looks forward to seeing their work in a more satisfying piece soon.