The famous mythological tale of Cupid and Psyche, about a girl who fell in love with a god and then went to hell and back to be with him, is currently getting the musical theater treatment at the John Houseman Studio Theater under the title of — what else? — Cupid and Psyche. The story has been a favorite of dramatists for ages; most recently it was rendered on stage with poetic elegance in the Broadway hit Metamorphoses. But bookwriter/lyricist Sean Hartley and composer Jihwan Kim, the folks behind Cupid and Psyche, take a much more light-hearted approach to this tale of forbidden love.
The myth tells of the young love god Cupid being sent by his mother Venus to punish the mortal princess Psyche, who is so beautiful that Venus-worshippers are paying more attention to her than their goddess. But, while on assignment to make Psyche fall in love with a hideous monster, Cupid falls in love with her himself. He knows that, as a god, he is not permitted to be with a human if she knows that he’s a god. So, to prevent her from recognizing him, he takes her away to his palace and visits her only at night, in the dark.
Surprisingly, a good relationship grows out of this strange arrangement, but curiosity soon gets the best of Psyche. One night, she shines a lamp on the sleeping Cupid and discovers his identity, causing him to flee. Venus learns of the clandestine relationship and sets out to punish Psyche herself, sending her on a variety of near-impossible missions (including a trip to Hades) that, astonishingly, the young woman accomplishes. The last task nearly kills her — but Cupid returns, heals her, and arranges to have her made immortal so that they can be together at last.
Hartley’s adaptation keeps very close to the original myth. His most significant deviations, which include giving the overprotective mother Venus a greater role in the couple’s breakup and reunion and adding Mercury to the mix as Cupid’s hard-partying best friend, only serve to strengthen the story. If you’re unfamiliar with the myth, you might never guess Hartley was being so true to his source. In fact, if you plucked the wings (designed by Christine Darch) off of Barrett Foa’s shaggy blonde Cupid, this might seem like just another story about young love and the complications that can arise from dishonesty, mistrust, jealous mothers, and neglected best friends.
No attempt has been made to give the story a contemporary setting; that would be hard to do when places like Mt. Olympus and Hades play a major part in your play’s geography. Yet Hartley’s dialogue and the characters’ attitudes are very modern. Whether Mercury and Cupid are planning a wild night out or experiencing pre-relationship jitters, they seem like a couple of regular college guys. Although there is a silliness to the modernization that removes many of the poetic elements of the myth in its purer form, this spin is ultimately an asset for the show, especially if you consider the potential appeal to younger audiences.
Many of Hartley’s changes and special touches are welcome, such as having Cupid actually make himself invisible to keep Psyche from discovering his identity, rather than simply visiting her in the dark. (Somehow, the power of invisibility is more believable than the myth’s original conceit.) One place where Hartley does falter is in being too self-referential; the musical theater allusions at the top of the show are relentless, as are many pointless mythological references. Fortunately, these thin out as the story progresses.
I must admit that, going in, I was worried about the show’s ties with the Off-Broadway musical Zanna, Don’t! — both have the same musical supervisor/arranger and choreographer, a similar superhuman plot element, and even a related theme of love that breaks the rules. Zanna has a terrific concept and a cute script but a weak score; Cupid and Psyche, however, has a strong score to match its charming adaptation of the myth. Kim’s classical background shines through in his music, which is very melodic, and Hartley’s lyrics serve the story just fine. Kim and musical director Peter Yarin provide excellent accompaniment on two pianos.
Rounding out its attractions, the show has a fantastic four-person cast: Foa as the heartbreaker Cupid, Deborah Lew as the beautiful and spirited Psyche, lithe and mischievous Logan Lipton as Mercury and other characters, and the outstanding Laura Marie Duncan as the vain, dry-witted Venus. This quartet is instrumental in making Cupid and Psyche the crowd-pleaser that it definitely is.