Prodigal, a new musical imported to the York Theatre direct from Australia, is an update of the New Testament parable about a young son who flees the responsibilities of home life only to come crawling back after he’s spent his money and lost his dignity. In the parable, the young man’s return is resented by his hard working brother but he is welcomed back with open arms by his father; in this musical version, the father is not so forgiving, for he has discovered that his beloved son is gay.
Luke is the name of the prodigal son here, and he lives in a small fishing town south of Sydney. Having just graduated high school, he is expected to join his older brother Kane in managing the family business. But Luke has been accepted into a university in Sydney, so he takes the car his father has given him to run the business and instead runs off to school. There he befriends a free spirit named Maddy and later meets Zach, who becomes his first boyfriend. Over the phone, Luke tells his father that he’s gay, and his dad’s lack of acceptance starts the young man on a downward spiral that includes losing his job and getting hooked on drugs. He eventually returns home only to find that more obstacles await.
Prodigal is a bit of a paradox. On one hand, this telling of an old tale brings greater depth to the characters while embellishing the plot in interesting ways. The show doesn’t use its source material as a crutch and it makes a laudable attempt to explore the more complicated aspects of a very familiar story. For example, Luke isn’t your typical wild child; it’s actually a mixture of ambition, carelessness, and his insistence on being himself that gets him into trouble. Before dad can accept his wayward son, he has to overcome his own prejudices and stubbornness. And Kane’s resentment of Luke isn’t presented as mere jealousy but stems from a desire for his father’s approval.
Yet Prodigal feels more like a sketch for a musical than a fully fleshed-out piece. The music, by Matthew Frank (who also acts as the show’s one man band on piano), is pretty but not especially memorable, and many of the songs feel too short and/or simple to convey deep emotions. The book, by Dean Bryant, is competently constructed and frequently funny, but Bryant’s lyrics seldom rise above adequacy and are often banal and generic. Attempts at economy (Luke’s adjustment to city life is dealt with in one lengthy song, as is his descent into drugs) result in the shortchanging of Luke’s growth as a person; we don’t even get to really see him come to the realization that he is gay. With a score lacking in depth and an undeveloped central character, the show ends up seeming too quick and superficial.
The five members of the ensemble do well with the material they’ve been handed. Joshua Park is very effective as Luke, demonstrating a sweet but sometimes self-centered personality that makes him a realistic and sympathetic prodigal son. Christian Borle, who has the difficult double duty of playing Luke’s brother as well as his boyfriend, provides comic relief. David Hess is very good as the conflicted father and Alison Fraser is fine as the mother. Kerry Butler is charming as Maddy; it’s too bad that the part isn’t a little meatier.
Prodigal has a cute sense of humor and a lot of heart. What it needs is more strength, more energy, and more work. The writers, only 23 when they created the show, display considerable promise. With further experience and sharpening of their skills, they may yet bring us an entirely satisfying musical from Down Under.