Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Review: PSYCHE: A Modern Rock Opera, Art Brought to Life

Ashley Ruth Jones (Psyche) and Michael Starr (Eros). Photos by Barry Weiss.

The world premiere of PSYCHE: A Modern Rock Opera is undeniably impressive, especially when you consider the scope of the author’s vision and the level of detail that has gone into its execution. The 2½ hour sung-through opera by composer/lyricist/ bookwriter Cindy Shapiro borrows stylistic elements from French grand opera and contemporary musical theatre, and combines them with a deconstructed rock landscape to tell the Greek myth of Psyche and Eros, and though it may not succeed in accomplishing everything it sets out to do, what it does achieve is an intriguing fusion of sound and picture, the effect of which is much like a master painting brought to life.

In fact, the way scenic designer Stephen Gifford has transformed the Greenway Court Theatre is one of the production’s most jaw-dropping accomplishments. Gifford’s mythic cloud world of the gods is an elaborate panorama that stretches in all directions, reaching up into the rafters and disappearing through the back wall to create an optical illusion of infinite depth in this airy Greek temple in the sky. Massive marble columns entwined with thick vines and other Greek architectural features are blended with sturdy iron scaffolding adding a subtle Mad Max nod to the design.

Overlaying Tim Swiss’ lighting gives the structure an earthy timelessness as shadow and light morph to make the three-dimensional painting animate and the characters move like an extension of a work of art. E.B. Brooks’ costumes further develop the ethereal and futuristic textures in the clothing so that when the light catches the movement of the material it adds another layer of sensuality to what the eye experiences. 

Ashley Ruth Jones and the company of PSYCHE

Breathtaking pictures emerge as the integration of choreography, movement, dance and staging by director Michael Matthews and choreographer Janet Roston seamlessly pull all the visual elements together: Psyche poised on top of the cliff ready to dive into the unknown; a storm with just enough strobe effect to create drama but not chaos; black aerial silks dropped from above for two men to sky dance in Hades; Psyche and Eros draped atop a revolving static trapeze….over and over Matthews builds the stage pictures to create a thing of beauty. There is no careless movement here.

Where the production falters is in its underlying structure. The book lacks urgency and focus, packing in so much of the Psyche and Eros myth that it becomes harder, rather than easier, to follow. At the same time, characters sing lyric after lyric that are so obvious, repetitious, and wandering that they begin to feel silly early on… e.g. “I’m amazed. I’m just amazed that I am here to tell this tale. I did not die. I’m still alive. I live.” [repeat twice]. Not only is it redundant but it doesn’t allow the vocal to go anywhere, so the next rock ballad sounds like the rock ballad before it and nothing jumps out as particularly memorable. Even with opera, where the music itself is where much of the emotion lives, the story needs to reach a modern audience that may not be used to the art form.

One quite beautiful effect in Shapiro’s post-modern score, however, is the distinctive choral sound she and musical director Jack Wall achieve with the ensemble voices. The complex harmonies and shifting tonalities are sung using straight tones that allow the voices to resonate simultaneously creating a haunting sound with overtones that soar effortlessly over the 16-piece orchestra. The best way I can describe it is as if an artist was painting on a canvas but with sound instead of oils. Stunning.

The vocal ranges for some of the solo voices are more difficult for the singers to master, especially for the women. Often they range from too low to be heard over the orchestra, even when there are two of them singing – to requiring a belt in such a high tessitura that the singer can’t help but sound screechy.

Ashley Ruth Jones and Michael Starr are believable as the lovers who must transcend convention to reach their happily ever after and Laura L. Thomas, as the goddess Aphrodite, is lovely but has the blackest heart imaginable. Benai Boyd and Cindy Sciacca personify evil and offer a few moments of levity as Psyche’s sisters and Aphrodite’s handmaidens. Each embodies the symbolic quality of his or her role but, with the exception of Jones who makes the journey, and late in the game Starr, most are limited by the writing in what they can do.

Uncredited ensemble actors shine vocally in various roles, specifically those playing Psyche’s mother, her father, and Zeus, all of whom have gorgeous voices. The quirky actor playing Hermes also adds a welcome comic element.

In the end, it may not be a perfect new work and it may not be for everyone, but PSYCHE certainly leaves an impression. I suggest you think of it not as a musical theatre piece or as a typical opera but as a living work of art. And that's always open to a personal interpretation.

Michael Starr and Laura L. Thomas

Ashley Ruth Jones on chaise with (L-R) Katie Kitani, Benai
Alicia Boyd, Cindy Sciacca and Michael Starr

Ashley Ruth Jones and Michael Starr

August 22 – September 28, 2014
Greenway Court Theatre
544 N. Fairfax Avenue
Hollywood, CA 
Tickets: (323) 655.7679 x100 or

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