Adam Guettel’s entrancingly ethereal 1998 song cycle Myths and Hymns, now at the West End Theatre, becomes a rather pedestrian affair when matched with the new narrative that writer/director Elizabeth Lucas has created for The Prospect Theatre Company.
Lucas never captures the transcendent wonderment that’s inherent in Guettel’s work. Instead, she frames the songs within the context of an emotionally fraught evening for an elderly woman (Linda Balgord), seemingly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, as she spends one final night in the home where she’s raised her children.
Following a fight with “Daughter” (Anika Larsen) — none of the characters are given names beyond their generic roles — the woman locks herself in the attic (an abstracted cardboard box-filled environment in Ann Bartek’s scenic design). Soon, memories begin filling her head (and the stage), from the moment her husband (Bob Stillman) proposed through crises faced by her children.
In one instance, “Come to Jesus,” the scenario onstage matches Guettel’s original. The song, inspired by a lyric in The Temple Trio hymnal from 1886, centers on a woman, in this case, the Daughter, as she writes to a lover just before she terminates an unwanted pregnancy.
Given that Guettel contextualized his modern-day hymn in this way, it’s easy to understand Lucas’ instinct to place all of the numbers within the confines of a family drama. But attempting to fuse Guettel’s musicalization of the myth of Icarus with a battle between Son (Lucas Steele) and his dad, after the elder man has discovered his child is gay, or using the song that centers on Sisyphus as a means of bringing Husband’s fatal heart attack to the stage, is reductive to Guettel’s work.
Elsewhere, Lucas’ narrative, which uses few words, can simply devolves into melodrama. Guettel’s “Jesus the Mighty Conqueror” is delivered while Husband rages against his entire family, disowning his children as he rips a page with their names from the family bible and even striking his daughter, who for a period during the show even descends into alcoholism.
But even in this scene, which never induces the chills one expects Lucas intends, Stillman sings passionately and Steele’s clarion vocals deftly traverse Guettel’s melodic line. Larsen and Balgord (who gets only one musical number) shine in the production, as do Matthew Farcher as the daughter’s on-and-off Lover and Donell James Foreman, who, though identified as Shapeshifter, is more often than not seen as Son’s best friend, and later lover.
Unfortunately, all of the performers’ fine work is undermined by Janie Bullard’s disappointingly uneven sound design, while, conversely, Herrick Goldman’s sumptuous lighting design is as heavenly as Guettel’s fine score.