Ayn Rand's dystopian novella becomes a sparkly dance musical starring original Village Person Randy Jones.
"Music! Dance! Capitalism!" exclaims the subtitle for The Anthem, the new musical by Gary Morgenstein, Jonnie Rockwell, and Erik Ransom, now making its world premiere at Culture Project's Lynn Redgrave Theater. Loosely based on Ayn Rand's novella, Anthem (which received a far more earnest theatricalization last year), this meta-musical lets Rand's dystopian vision of a society without individualism speak for itself, without a lot of quippy editorial commentary in the dialogue. The space opera-inspired design does all the heavy lifting in that regard, dressing up Rand's world in leather fetish gear and silver lamé. While this provides for hearty laughs throughout the first act, the show begins to falter in the second act like a stalled warp drive. No matter how thrilling the design and staging, The Anthem just can't overcome a book and score in desperate need of trimming.
Many centuries in the future, society is organized into The Grid, a Borg-like hive mind that eschews individuality in favor of the common good. "Free of ambition / Just sequins and submission," the people rejoice. Led by first citizen Pandora (Jenna Leigh Green) and second citizen Tiberius (Randy Jones of The Village People), these gleeful lemmings are unburdened by choice. Jobs, clothing, sex partners — everything is determined by the state. But not everyone is so happy with this spangled collectivism: Prometheus (Jason Gotay convincingly embodying a handsome naïf) longs for a higher calling than his assigned vocation of legal functionary. One day he stumbles into an abandoned subway station where he discovers a chemistry set and a copy of Ayn Rand's Anthem. He also meets Athena, Queen of the Forest (Ashley Kate Adams) and her band of off-the-grid rebels. Suddenly, a whole new world of recreational sex and free-market capitalism seems possible. Will Prometheus fight to reform The Grid from within, or will he join the rebellion? Not if his chosen mate, Hera (Remy Zaken), has anything to say about it.
This far-flung century looks eerily like the previous one in director Rachel Klein's thorough and well-considered design: Awash in neon pinks and greens and sporting a giant disco ball, Robert Andrew Kovach's set bears a striking resemblance to that of Heathers: The Musical, while the costumes oscillate between skintight unitards and post-apocalyptic jungle chic, reminding us of both Solid Gold and Mad Max. Klein has firmly rooted The Anthem in the aesthetic of the late-'70s, early-'80s sci-fi drama. (Think Flash Gordon or Logan's Run.) This is all great fun in its gaudiness and gives the sparkle of ridiculousness to an already-ludicrous story.
In case you're overwhelmed by heavy-handed objectivist melodrama, Brian Joseph Ferree has impressively staged several extended aerial sequences set to sexy/cheesy guitar music (orchestrations and arrangements by Michael S. Gayle). Ferree performs in these death-defying routines, which are awesome to behold in the close confines of the Redgrave. Patch David wows by executing a perfect axel on Rollerblades, Starlight Express-style, during Prometheus' chemistry-set ballet. This cast knows how to move.
Unfortunately, maximalist design, caffeinated choreography, and committed performances are not enough to keep us interested in a convoluted and lengthy script that starts to feel like a space-age version of five-year-olds playing house.
Rockwell's songs are high-energy pop-rock anthems. With a ready-for-radio teeny-bopper sound and witty lyrics by Ransom, "State Sanctioned Love" (performed by the hilarious Zaken) is a highlight. Still, there are more power ballads than a Frank Wildhorn musical and they're mostly indistinguishable. This is too bad because the wittiest song in the show is the finale, a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the anarchy that is the logical conclusion of Rand's radical individualism. By the time it arrives, you may have already tuned out. Perhaps this is a hazard of the play world, which is rarely surprising and mostly two-dimensional in its construction.
You're unlikely to have any new revelations about Rand and her objectivist philosophy from viewing The Anthem. Those who worship her will continue to do so while her detractors maintain their sneers. Theatergoers of all political stripes are likely to have a much better time if they table their deeply held convictions about the polarizing author and surrender to the design and performance. You can't help but be impressed by an aerial contortionist rotating two feet away from your face.