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The cast of Penelope
Photo: Carol Rosegg


                                 By Deirdre Donovan

The York Theatre Company is putting on the Greeks this season, with the arrival of Peter Kellogg (book and lyrics) and Stephen Weiner’s (music) new musical Penelope or How The Odyssey was Really Written.  Directed and choreographed by Emily Maltby, and now playing at The Theatre at St. Jean’s, this female-centric work lies somewhere between Ithaca and the imagination.

Those theatergoers who are familiar with the story of The Odyssey will immediately recognize the principal characters and goings on in Penelope.  Yes, the eponymous character (aptly nicknamed “Pen”) is the wife of Odysseus, the King of Ithaca.  And, yes, for 20 years she’s been waiting and waiting for his return from the Trojan War, putting up with a covey of suitors, eager to marry her and claim Odysseus’ kingdom.

In this fanciful version of the tale, the suitors, who are eating Penelope, and her 20 year-old son Telemachus, “out of house and home,” have formed an a cappella group to entertain themselves between meals in Ithaca.  Not only do they have plenty of time to hone their craft, they discover that the great hall has “great acoustics,” a boon to them (and an ear-ache to Penelope).  To pacify the suitors, Penelope writes letters to herself and bluffs that they are from Odysseus, supposedly reporting on his adventures and home sickness.  What she doesn’t realize is that she is creating the immortal narrative of The Odyssey.

Sound far-fetched?

Well, yes and no.  According to Kellogg, he’s not the first to posit that a woman wrote this epic poem.  Indeed, in a program note he points to the 19th-century English novelist and critic Samuel Butler who believed that a woman inked The Odyssey.  His logic?  Butler argued that “the female characters of The Odyssey have much more depth and agency than the women of The Iliad-- so clearly it was written by a different person.”

Britney Nicole Simpson as Penelope
Photo:  Carol Rosegg

Whether or not you buy into the theory of female authorship of The Odyssey, there’s much to enjoy in this musical.  And, unsurprisingly, it starts with its music.

Although the Prologue (sung by the company) was performed in a stylized manner and reverent tone, reverence went out the window with the first number, ”She’s Gonna Be Mine,” sung by the suitors.  Of course, Penelope and her 20 year-old son Telemachus, crushed the suitors’ braggadocio with their cunning in the next number, “The Letter from Aeolia,” in which Odysseus’ adventure with the one-eyed Polyphemus was vividly described in rhythm and rhyme.   The musical found its heart with the song “The Man That I Married", in which Penelope pondered her happy conjugal life with Odysseus.   But no worries.  This musical never toppled into mawkish sentimentality.  The next two numbers— “Pigs!” (a lament by the 18 year-old swineherd Daphne) and “Faint” (a duet sung by the faint-prone Telemachus and his love interest Daphne) offered comic relief in spades.  And the spotlight returned to you-know-who with the number, “No One Will Ever Know,” which gives you a blueprint on how The Odyssey materialized into a masterpiece letter by letter.

If Act 1 whet your musical appetite, Act 2 delivered more songs that propelled the action forward in unforeseen directions.  At the top of Act 2, there’s the number “Penelope,” enthusiastically sung by the suitors, to the snappy beat of the Beach Boys hit song “California Girls.”  Following this parody, Odysseus surfaced on the shores of Ithaca to croon two soulful ballads:  his solo “Home Again” and “The Mills of the Gods,” with the ensemble.  The spiciest song in the show?  Hands down, it was the Act 2 duet “I’m Not Sure I Remember How,” in which Penelope and Odysseus’ rediscovered their sexual chemistry.

Naturally, the company must be in fine-fettle to pull off this two-hour entertainment.  Fortunately, Britney Nicole Simpson’s Penelope, Ben Jacoby’s Odysseus, and Philippe Arroyo’s Telemachus, all deliver the musical goods.  And let’s not forget Leah Hocking’s Eurycleia and Maria Wirries’ Daphne, who perform the Old Nurse and 18 year-old swineherd, respectively, with winning realism.   A shout out to the hammy actors playing the suitors, including Cooper Howell’s Antinous, David LaMarr’s Mileter, Jacob Simon’s Bassanio, George Slotin’s Haius and Sean Thompson’s Barius.  Their do-wop singing is just one of the many endearing anachronisms in the show. 

Ben Jacoby, Britney Nicole Simpson, as Odysseus and Penelope
Photo: Carol Rosegg

 Jim Morgan’s set, lit by David A. Sexton, is a poetic recreation of a vanished world.  Lex Liang’s traditional Greek costumes, if not the genuine article, captured the spirit of what Ithacans likely wore circa 1174 B.C.  Maltby’s clean choreography never failed to ratchet up the energy on stage as the story unspooled.

No, the musical isn’t flawless.  The character Penelope is a tad underwritten.  No question she is the epitome of patience.  But if one is to believe that she is capable of creating The Odyssey, there should be a scene—or two--that shows she possesses a winged intelligence.

In any event, why nitpick this feel-good musical that ends on a life-affirming note?  In truth, the strong suit of Penelope is that it’s not just a musical with a little bit of literary flavoring.  It catches the thought processes of people as they ride the rollercoaster of Life.  You cock your ears to its dialogue, lyrics, and score because you recognize the sentiments beneath them as genuinely human and pulsing with life. 

So, say what you will about the bigger, splashier Broadway musicals across town.  Kellogg and Weiner, on a more modest budget, have cooked up a show of enormous charm.

Through  April 24th.
At the Theatre at St. Jean’s, 150 East 76th Street, Manhattan.
For more information, visit via email boxoffice@yorktheatre or or phone the Box Office at (212) 935-5820.
Running time:  2 hours with 1 intermission.