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.
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
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 www.ovationtix.com or
phone the Box Office at (212) 935-5820.
Running time: 2 hours with 1 intermission.