Joshua Henry and Anika Larsen
in Serenade
Joshua Henry and Anika Larsen
in Serenade
Occasionally, there walk among us pure souls spared the egotistical motives that keep the majority of humankind constantly on the lookout for avenues to self-advancement. We tend to label such creatures "holy fools" and fear for their welfare in a cut-throat world. Such is the tension that animates the fable-like Serenade, an offbeat and thoroughly winning new musical with a score by Nils Olaf Dolven and book and lyrics by Tony Award winner Rachel Sheinkin, now premiering at Teatro La Tea on the Lower East Side. Indeed, Sheinkin's script -- while overflowing with gentle lessons in loving-kindness -- manages to both eschew cynicism and incorporate plenty of quirky humor.

The play's protagonist, Thomas (portrayed by the luminous Joshua Henry, last seen in the ensemble of In the Heights) is something of a modern-day Prince Myshkin, only without the title or wherewithal. Having mastered the art of silhouette-making to amuse his bedridden mother, he hops a train to the big city to seek his fortune after her death. Just which city and when are left purposefully vague: "fictional" is all the program will tell us. The physical details -- Tobin Ost's backdrop grid of weathered pine lathing in a striated wash of light by Herrick Goldman, plus Andrea Varga's non-period-specific costumes -- leave the field wide open.

Clearly we're dealing in archetypes here, such as art versus commerce or social conscience versus capitalism. Yet, Thomas is oblivious to the broader ramifications. He immediately spends his paltry coins on fruit and toys, which he joyfully dispenses to passersby. He falls in love with Hannah (Anika Larsen), the first woman he sees twice. Having secured a lonely cubicle of a room encircled by chanting monks, a fractious couple, and a weeping woman, he counts himself lucky until he fails to find work (there's a marvelous song about instant rejection, "Fill in the Blank") and begins a downward spiral, all the while resisting despair. Moreover, you're sure to feel for Thomas as he attends a dance party (snappily choreographed by Luis Salgado) in his beloved's honor, bearing a heartbreaker of a hostess gift. Later, he tries to go upwardly mobile for her sake.

All 18 cast members, under April Nickell's crisp direction, are certifiable triple threats. Larsen (currently on a short break from Xanadu) employs a powerful, almost steely soprano that's very effective in an exuberant duet, "Fantasy Classifieds." Nicole Lewis, as a woman reluctantly pawning her mother's most treasured possession, lends a lovely timbre to her ballad of disillusionment and loss. Eileen Rivera tickles as Hannah's acerbic invalid aunt; Amanda Hunt is touching as a loquacious nurse who herself longs to be touched; and Chris Harbur ably embodies the crabby voice of authority in multiple roles.

While Serenade can't promise the easy humor of Sheinkin's award-winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, it echoes its predecessor's unsettling subtext of strife and stress and insecurity. We can't all be saintly like Thomas, but having witnessed the straits he endures with unfailing good faith, there's a strong chance we'll emerge as more compassionate human beings.