(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
The Vortex Theater’s latest premiere project is a brand-new musical comedy, Persephone, based on the ancient myth of the Greek goddess whose abduction to the underworld by Hades creates/represents the changing of the seasons. This version of Persephone, though, tells a different story, one focused on love and fertility in the worlds both above and below.
Persephone is the work of Mick D’arcy, who wrote the book, and Tyler Mabry, who wrote the music (and serves as musical director and pianist), with the pair collaborating on the lyrics. Under the direction of Matthew Patterson, D’Arcy and Mabry’s text comes to dazzling life with an array of colors and an abundance of energy.
It is this energy – and an unencumbered sense of fun, joy, and positivity – that truly define this production. A simplistic set design from Ann Marie Gordon is made endlessly mutable by gorgeous lighting from designer Patrick Anthony that creates the tone and locale for each scene, while Talena Martinez’ costumes pop with color and vivacity.
However energetic, though, Persephone is ultimately somewhat uneven. Its plot structure and mechanics borrow from Shakespeare’s comedies as much as from Greek myth, with a flurry of disguised identities, hidden eavesdropping, offstage events, and complex schemes, all in the name of love. The language of the characters, though, is caught somewhat between the heightened constructions of Shakespeare and a more modern dialect. This distinction frequently becomes distracting, particularly since only a handful of the large cast pull off the difficult task deftly.
Similarly, the music often shifts between more classical, book musical, Broadway-style fair and Sondheim-esque snippets of songs and lyrics, which can be mildly off-putting at times. With its Shakespearean plot, combined with music, song, and dance, Persephone is a big show, and yet in the intimate space of the Vortex Theater some of the broader gestures required of such a production can seem over-the-top, though some of the performers are able to pull off this balancing act with aplomb.
Chelsea Manasseri, as Persephone, is subtle and delightful, embodying the innocent charm and sense of wonder of the titular heroine, and it is lamentable that the text gives her relatively little stage time. Her mother, Demeter, is personified by Amber Lackey, whose beautiful voice and confident presence make her every bit a goddess. Completing the classical Triple Goddess configuration of mother-maiden-chrone is the delightfully cantankerous Hecate, Demeter’s mother, portrayed with both snarky humor and deep empathy by the always-wonderful Lana Dietrich. Also of note are the triad of Kore – young maidens – who serve as Persephone’s retinue. What might otherwise be an undifferentiated chorus is given life and individuality by the strengths of Callie Jane Hacker, Annie Kim Hedrick, and Corinna Browning.
Although on the whole uneven, it is these (and other) delightful performances that make Persephone a fun, light, and engaging evening of musical theater.
“Persephone” continues through April 16 at www.vortexrep.org