Idina Menzel in See What I Wanna See
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Idina Menzel in See What I Wanna See
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
In a recent issue of the magazine Opera News, Michael John LaChiusa chastised many of his fellow musical theater composers for creating safe, even ersatz musicals. "All sense of invention and craft is abandoned in favor of delivering what the audience thinks a musical should deliver," he wrote. "There is no challenge, no confrontation, no art -- and everyone sighs with relief."

On the basis of See What I Wanna See, his new musical at The Public Theater, even LaChiusa's detractors will be forced to admit that he has the courage of his convictions. Provocative and daring if somewhat formalistic, the triptych-like See What I Wanna See doesn't concern itself with anything as mundane as whether or not two con artists will pull off a swindle. Its mission is nothing less than an examination of the elusive nature of truth.

Conversely, even LaChiusa's most ardent champions may have to admit that he can be his own worst enemy in trying to convert people to his cause. While he once again proves capable of creating beautiful music, LaChiusa's reliance on barely sketched characters and recitative-filled sequences -- far more prevalent in the musical's problematic first half, "R Shomon," than in the eerily moving and supremely satisfying "Gloryday" -- can fail to draw audiences into his world, sometimes leaving his intellectual musings to wander through an emotional void. Not even the best efforts of director Ted Sperling and a top-notch cast led by Idina Menzel, Marc Kudisch, Henry Stram, and Mary Testa can completely mask these shortcomings.

In keeping with LaChiusa's longtime fondness for unconventional musical material -- e.g., La Ronde and the poem The Wild Party -- he has turned here to three short stories by the Japanese writer Ryonosuke Akutgawa. In "Kesa and Morita," played in two gorgeously melodic and strikingly sung scenes that open each act, we have Menzel and Kudisch as a pair of medieval Japanese adulterers, each describing how they plan to murder the other in the name of love, honor, and sanity. In line with the central theme of the evening, the second scene ends without us knowing which version (if either) is true.

Akutgawa's "In a Grove" was the basis for Akira Kurosawa's 1950 cinematic masterpiece Rashomon, the story of a brutal murder told from four differing viewpoints. For "R Shomon," LaChiusa moves the action to New York City in 1951, cleverly setting it on the night of the premiere of the Kurosawa movie at a theater whose marquee is inexplicably missing the letter "a." Otherwise, he hews closely to the story's set-up. Kudisch is Louis, a suave but foolish business owner who is found dead in Central Park. But who did the fatal stabbing, and why? Was the killer the two-bit thief Jimmy (Aaron Lohr) who happily takes credit for the crime in hopes of elevating his place in history? Was it his lounge-singer wife, Lily (Menzel), who chickens out on a murder-suicide pact made after the eternal tarnishing of their marriage by Jimmy's rape of her? Did Louis do himself in after learning how much Lily hated and resented him? And how much does the man who found the body, the movie house's timid janitor (Henry Stram), really know about all this?

While LaChiusa eventually draws us into the mystery, "R Shomon" too often falls on the wrong side of the line between pastiche and authenticity. Lohr's swagger seems badly copied from James Dean, and Menzel's first entrance in this section -- in a cleavage-baring, cherry red dress designed by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward -- makes us wonder if the Tony Award winning actress is auditioning for a revival of Bus Stop.

Some theatergoers may also be distracted by another concern: Menzel is performing a role that was written for and previously played by the peerless Audra McDonald, who reportedly couldn't do this run because of a commitment to a new TV series. Luckily, Menzel's hard-edged, off-center beauty and throaty vocalism prove to be an excellent match for Lily, whether she's tossing off the show's jazz-tinged title tune or offering a searing rebuke to Louis, "No More." But Wicked fans should take note that, in this score, LaChiusa has provided no opportunities for Menzel to indulge in showy melismas or gravity-defying notes.

Nor can any of that be found in "Gloryday." This haunting meditation on faith and truth focuses on Michael (Stram), a priest in post-9/11 New York whose crisis of faith leads him to take drastic action: In Central Park, he posts notes promising the re-emergence of Jesus Christ on a particular Tuesday afternoon. While his atheisitc Aunt Monica (Testa) has always told him that religion is "The Greatest Practical Joke of All" (one of the piece's strongest songs), Michael soon discovers that his own practical joke has reignited the faith of many others, including a CPA-turned-homeless man (Kudisch) and a self-centered actress (Menzel). But, ultimately, it's Michael's faith that is most severely tested -- and, perhaps, rewarded.

Finally, a word about Mary Testa. That word is "amazing." Testa has previously put herself in LaChiusa's service in Marie Christine and First Lady Suite. She appears only briefly in "R Shomon," but with just a few broad brush strokes and her powerhouse yet nuance-filled vocal instrument, she transforms "Gloryday"'s Monica from a stock immigrant mother to a world-weary yet wise mother of us all. There are many good reasons to see See What I Wanna See, but catching Testa in action is the best of all.