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The Portal: A Modern Shamanic Journey

Billy Lewis Jr. of Glee stars in an unusual multimedia event at the Minetta Lane Theatre.

Billy Lewis Jr. stars in The Portal, directed by Luke Comer, at the Minetta Lane Theatre.
(© Russ Rowland)

The Portal sets a high bar for itself from the get-go. Frontloaded with talk of self-discovery and soul-bearing truths, one expects no less than spiritual revelation. Unfortunately, this "rock odyssey" at the Minetta Lane Theatre disappoints on several planes of existence: Not only is its mystical wisdom a generic mashup of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, but its theatrical staging is mushy and lethargic.

The 90-minute multimedia event features original music by Tierro Lee (with additional compositions by Kan'Nal and Lisa Gerrard). Its overall concept and execution seems to be the work of producer-director Luke Comer, who places a talented cast of musicians and dancers in front of a large projection screen as if they were garnish to the prerecorded main course.

When not featuring kaleidoscopic patterns (or "fractals," as the show calls them), the screen presents a film about Dante (Christopher Soren Kelly), a frustrated modern urbanite who goes on a spiritual quest through the desert. There he meets a vengeful businessman with a microchip in his forehead, a child (perhaps of the inner variety), and a grim reaper. "The show is less literal and more allegorical and dreamy," a helpful preshow slide advises. In actuality, the whole thing feels like a particularly memorable Burning Man acid trip committed to celluloid.

Billy Lewis Jr. is flanked by musicians Gilly Gonzalez and Paul Casanova in The Portal.
(© Russ Rowland)

Lee's repetitive music rarely feels more than incidental. Inspired by EDM (electronic dance music), the numbers blend together, like the ambient loop one might hear in a lounge that serves $20 cocktails. A serious sound-balance issue renders most of the lyrics incomprehensible. When a line or two does sneak through (I briefly heard, "There's more than this desert / Your heart holds the answer / Seek the very counsel of your youth"), one begins to understand that the overpowering music might be intentional.

Dancers Marija Juliette Abney, Jessica Aronoff, and Nicole Spencer whirl like dervishes in Jessica Chen's athletic choreography, at times appearing to blend into the spinning patterns projected behind them. It is physically very impressive, but feels more ornamental than integral to the slim plot.

At the very least, the live musicians seem to be having fun: Guitarist Paul Casanova closes his eyes and groves to his solos like he's Carlos Santana. Wearing an infectious smile, Gilly Gonzalez bangs his drum as if no one is watching (which was very nearly the case at the performance I attended).

Billy Lewis Jr. (Glee) is the frontman of this group. He has genuine rock pipes and a gorgeously pure falsetto. Sadly, his talents are misused in this ill-gotten project. Direction-starved, he spends most of the show facing the audience and waving his hands through the air — conducting some invisible orchestra like he's the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Jessica Aronoff, Billy Lewis Jr., and Nicole Spencer star in The Portal.
(© Russ Rowland)

Comer seems to have been just as negligent with the design: Costume designer Liene Dobraja outfits everyone in slim white uniforms with fractal breastplates. They give the impression of a cult that has at least one great tailor within its ranks. Traci Klainer Polimeni's lighting is dim enough for the projections to shine through. The fractals are appropriately psychedelic, like staring into a lava lamp. Curiously, no projection designer is credited, which is strange since this is the show's most notable element.

The natural reaction to this misguided work is a shrug and a glance at the wristwatch. Perhaps this is a result of our hearts not being sufficiently open (Lewis makes a remark suggesting as much during the curtain call). Still, for a show that seems to promise a doorway to a new understanding of the world, The Portal offers little in terms of form and content that isn't derivative; to paraphrase the late Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is to a shamanic journey?"