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Theatre in Review: Penelope (York Theatre Company/Theatre at St. Jeans)

Britney Nicole Simpson, Ben Jacoby, Leah Hocking. Photo: Carol Rosegg

What is it with musical theatre writers and Greek culture? From The Boys from Syracuse to The Frogs, writers and composers love to break out the sandals and togas, often tossing in a god or two. Even The Iliad and The Odyssey -- unlikely candidates both -- have gotten the tuner treatment. In his program note, artistic director James Morgan cites The Golden Apple, the 1954 cult musical that resets both epics in 19th-century America. Most notoriously, there was 1976's Home Sweet Homer, the leaky Yul Brynner vehicle that, caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of irritated show fans and a hostile press, sank after one Broadway performance.

Now comes Penelope, a lark reminiscent of the frothy, just-for-fun hits of the '30s. The full title, Penelope, or How the Odyssey Was Really Written, reveals the central conceit: The title character has for twenty years dutifully ruled over Ithaca while her husband, the heroic Odysseus, has been in absentia, battling in the Trojan War and taking his time about his return. Meanwhile, a swarm of suitors has gathered around Penelope, eating her food and vying to replace Odysseus on the throne. Keeping this band of wolves at bay, she produces "letters" from her husband, detailing his many adventures, including the famous episodes with Circe and the Cyclops. Of course, they're forgeries; Homer's epic, a masterpiece of world literature, is being ghost-written by a desperate royal housewife. Accused by an angry wooer of peddling lies, she replies, defiantly, "They're myths."

Penelope gets no help from her son Telemachus, a not-quite-strapping lad who, given to fainting at the sight of blood, prefers to chase after Daphne, a winsome swineherd. ("Are those pigs laughing at me?" he worries, his male ego ever ready to crack.) When Odysseus finally washes ashore, looking the worse for wear, he resolves to get rid of those pesky suitors while disguised as the blind Homer. Eurycleia, Odysseus' boyhood nurse, is all for the plan. "Will there be unspeakable atrocities?" she asks, eagerly.

Penelope cheerfully goes about the business of transforming this classic tale into a Rodgers-and-Hart-style romp. "Look at you; a face that could turn Medusa to stone," says one suitor, insulting his rival. The other, unfazed, inquires, "Speaking of Medusa, how is your mother?" Penelope, learning of Odysseus's lengthy dalliance with the nymph Calypso, says, accusingly, "So you spent the last ten years on an island with a woman?" "Not a woman. A goddess," he replies, defensively. "That your opinion," she snaps. Odysseus, who has nothing to show for his adventures, is eager to have his reputation salvaged in Penelope's epic -- as long as Homer gets the credit.

Indeed, Peter Kellogg's book and lyrics are so consistently amusing that the show's weaker moments are thrown into high relief. There's nothing wrong with presenting Penelope's suitors as more interested in each other than any woman; this is ancient Greece, after all. ("We can appreciate each other's swords any time you say," one of them says, offering a challenge that sounds like an inquiry about his foe's Saturday-night availability.) But it would be good to establish more clearly that they are pursuing Penelope only for her power and prestige. Anyway, the suitors are a mixed success. The unctuous leader-of-the-pack Antinous needs better lines and the stentorian delivery of Cooper Howell who plays him, grows wearying. On the other hand, David LaMarr, expertly wielding a nail file as the swishy Mileter, slays every time he speaks.

Also, having gone to such trouble establishing Penelope as the woman behind The Odyssey, Kellogg and composer Stephen Weiner are forced to backtrack in a last-minute ballad, "All Along," that, however charmingly written, pretty much makes a hash of their feminist premise. It's a shame they couldn't come up with a cleverer solution.

Still, director/choreographer Emily Maltby generally strikes the right comic-book tone and she has a secret weapon in Britney Nicole Simpson as Penelope; gifted with expressive eyes, a casually rueful manner, and a voice like velvet, she provides these farcical doings with a necessary center of gravity. Simpson's stalwart and assured Odysseus, Ben Jacoby, makes a nice thing out of the Act II opener, "Home Again;" their natural chemistry has one rooting for the long-separated lovers to get back together. Philippe Arroyo and Maria Wirries provide solid comic counterpoint as Telemachus and Daphne, the latter trying to school the former in warrior fierceness. As Eurycleia, busily keeping tabs on the schemes unfolding around her, Leah Hocking makes a fine sidekick; she also has a voice powerful enough to rattle the Parthenon.

The score gleefully borrows from various sources -- a bit of doo-wop in "She's Gonna Be Mine," a touch of barbershop quartet for "Penelope," and a kicky bit of folk-rock for "The Mills of the Gods," Odysseus' warning to those who would steal other men's wives. (The vocal arrangements by Weiner, musical director/orchestrator David Hancock Turner, and Steve Delehanty are a major asset, especially when the suitors engage in some heavenly close harmony.) The lyrics are consistently witty. A frustrated Telemachus sings, "And when your father has a reputation/For slaughtering and widespread devastation/It can be an awkward situation/For his son to have this limitation." Penelope, fed up with fending off potential second husbands, sings "I'm tired of entertaining/I'm tired of déjà vu/I'm tired of men proposing/And the hoops I'm jumping through/The next time I throw a party/I'd like a party of two." It's polished and professional work of the sort we don't get often enough these days.

James Morgan's set includes a lovely watercolor view of the Ithacan coast and a proscenium that girds the action in classical pillars. David A. Sexton's lighting makes sparing but effective use of saturated colors and ballyhoos, juicing the action rather than overwhelming it. Lex Liang dresses the characters attractively; he also gives Odysseus a spectacularly ratty castaway look for his first entrance. The sound design by Bradlee Ward, for Auerbach Pollock Friedlander, is admirably clear.

The creators of Penelope have every reason to curse the fickle gods, having lost a couple weeks of the show's brief scheduled run to an outbreak of COVID. Too bad; right now, we need all the fun we can get. Here's hoping it returns soon, maybe with a couple of tweaks to make it even better. --David Barbour


(11 April 2022)

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