Ben Gunderson and Victoria Huston-Elem
in The Hidden Sky
(© Richard Termine)
Ben Gunderson and Victoria Huston-Elem
in The Hidden Sky
(© Richard Termine)
Set in a post-apocalyptic world where ash has obliterated the sun for centuries and where the new religious leaders have outlawed any form of mathematics and science, the new musical The Hidden Sky, now being presented by the Prospect Theater Company at the West End Theater, can often seem like a strange hybrid of Bertolt Brecht's The Life of Galileo and such classic musicals as Oklahoma! And though the piece -- from bookwriter Kate Chisholm and composer/lyricist Peter Foley (and based on a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin) -- consistently impresses in its ambition, it never proves to be truly satisfying.

The musical focuses on Ganil (a winning Victoria Huston-Elem), a young woman who is torn between Lani (played with no-nonsense geniality by Mark Mozingo), a priest whom she is supposed to marry, and Meade (an iron-lunged Ben Gunderson), a firebrand who helps her to expand her mind by introducing her to forbidden mathematic and intellectual precepts. She ultimately resolves the conflict that she has between the two men in her life (brought to life in an awkward dream dance sequence choreographed by Darren Lee) by opting for knowledge. She allows Meade to introduce her to Yin (played with dignity and understated power by Joy Lynn Matthews), who harbors others who are attempting to re-expand their society's scientific heritage.

Eventually, Meade -- always headstrong -- exposes himself to the authorities as being a seeker of knowledge. In doing so, he implicates Ganil, who finds herself being tortured by the religious leaders and discovering that the solace found in her work has brought her more satisfaction and serenity than anything she has previously known.

Chisholm's book and staging tell the story economically (if not always gracefully) and she is to be commended for her uncompromising conclusion, which refuses to give theatergoers a traditionally happy ending. Unfortunately, Foley's intricately conceived score, which contains intelligently considered leitmotifs and some beautifully conceived vocal arrangements, is filled with songs that prove to be overly static and presentational, and which stall the action rather than moving it forward. As a result, much of Hidden Sky can feel over-extended and overwritten. An exception is a montage in the second act, when Ganil furiously uses her newly acquired knowledge to begin reproving laws of physics and calculus theorems. It's dynamic and sends the show hurtling toward its climax and denouement.

In addition to the principal performances, which rarely seem as though they require the amplification by sound designer Asa F. Wember, other noteworthy turns come from Gordon Stanley, who brings a certain gravitas to the piece as Lani's father and Ganil's boss and Jesse Manocherian, who is double cast as two sorts of malcontents, one serious, one comic. He plays both with flair.