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Chris Fuller and Jessica Grové in
The Pursuit of Persephone
(Photo © Cara Reichel)
Raw talent isn't visible to the naked eye, but you sure know it when you see it -- and hear it. Songwriter Peter Mills has it. He's up to his eyeballs in it, and he's been flaunting it in small-ish Manhattan venues for a number of years. Right now, he's showing his astonishing abilities in a musical titled The Pursuit of Persephone, which is -- get ready for this -- a fictionalized account of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Princeton days shuffled with Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise.

Ambitious? Yes. Are Mills and his co-librettist and wife, Cara Reichel, up to it? The answer is: almost. There's no questioning Mill's tunesmithing skills; in the two-act Pursuit of Persephone, jubilant songs crop up at three-to-five-minute intervals. The melodies are buoyant, and Mills's clever words are set on them as colorfully as candles on a birthday cake. A sample of his wry rhyming facility is "sophomore" with "offer more." Take that, Lorenz Hart!

Since the musical is set between 1914 and 1916 (as seen in a flashback from 1937), Mills has given himself the opportunity to mimic ragtime as well as dance rhythms like the Turkey Trot while foreshadowing the Jazz Age that Fitzgerald practically invented single-handedly. One stretch of songs includes a beautiful, convincing school anthem and a comedy number for young women called "Letters to Boys." It'll have musical theater buffs dropping their jaws and other songwriters turning Kermit-green with envy.

Pursuit pursues wet-behind-the-ears Fitzgerald (Chris Fuller) as he decides that the way to be a BMOC is to run the prestigious Triangle Show. (There's a good deal of This Side of Paradise's autobiographical Amory Blaine thrown into the Fitzgerald figure.) The swaggering hero is simultaneously wooing the pre-Zelda girl of his dreams, Ginevra King (Jessica Grové), a socialite with as many swains as she has swag. Some of the complications that undo the admittedly fictionalized Fitzgerald are of his own making (he's a lazy student), others are not (his middle-class upbringing dooms his romance.)

As the script has it, he's still smitten with Ginevra two decades later, when he wanders into a Manhattan bar and reminisces while awaiting a planned reunion with her. Adding to the narrative tangle are Fitzgerald's friendships with fictionalized versions of his very real classmates John Peale Bishop (Benjamin Sands) and Edmund Wilson (David Abeles), who woos Ginevra's plain and plain-spoken roommate Marie Hersey (Piper Goodeve). Yes, this is the Edmund Wilson who eventually married and divorced Goodeve lookalike Mary McCarthy.

Incidentally, for those not familiar with the Princeton Triangle Show, it's an annual production put on by one of the campus's busiest organizations. (Perhaps the best-known song ever to issue from these undergraduate follies is "East of the Sun, West of the Moon.") When Fitzgerald joined -- and virtually took over -- the Triangle Club, women's roles were played by men and continued to be for many years afterward. Fitzgerald was considered to be very good at meeting the challenge; the show's program features a publicity still of the eventually famous literary figure masquerading as a high-class dame for the Triangle's 1915-1916 show, The Evil Eye. You could have fooled me!

But incorporating a Triangle show -- from which the musical takes its title -- creates a problem for Princeton alumni and former Triangle Club members Mills and Reichel. They've written a script about a Triangle show that retains too much of the feel of one. From time to time, it replicates the undergrad tomfoolery it depicts. Like the amateur outings presented, the show is sometimes attenuated, sometimes haphazard, sometimes repetitive.

So, while Mills is unquestionably a songwriter to celebrate, he has to accept a good deal of the responsibility for his latest work being unwieldy. That responsibility is split with Reichel, who, besides collaborating on the book, has directed the show. And, guess what: The Pursuit of Persephone is presented by the Prospect Theater Company, the producing artistic director of which is none other than Cara Reichel. The outfit's associate artist/resident writer is -- no surprise -- Mills. Congratulations to the two of them for promoting the work of such a gifted associate artist/resident writer, but it might have been a good idea for them to turn some of their tasks over to others with more objective views on the material and its execution.

Mills' score is Pursuit's major astonishment, but it's nearly matched by Chris Fuller's performance as Fitzgerald. The young man bears a canny resemblance to the fabled author, especially in profile. It's practically gravy that he is loaded with energy and sings and dances with full period flair. This bouncy lad is so reminiscent of the character he's playing that it wouldn't be a jolt to learn that whenever he disappears into the wings, he's resuming work on This Side of Paradise.

Another find is David Abeles as Edmund Wilson. A tall fellow who sings robustly, he's a Monty Wooley in the making. The rest of the cast give it the old college try with uneven results. So do set designer Sidney Shannon and lighting designer Jiyoun Chang. As for Mills and Reichel: In their joint pursuit of the musical comedy brass ring, they will probably achieve more by doing less.

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