Myths and Hymns [VIC]
The experience of Myths and Hymns commences with the venue. For those of you who have not been to the Revolt Artspace, this is your chance to discover this incredible arts precinct. The eclectic, urban surrounds of the converted warehouse (this is no ordinary theatre foyer) invite a sense of wonder and excitement that carry through into the performance space itself: a long room with a bar on one side, piano in the back corner, and a seating bank comprised of a conglomeration of assorted chairs and benches on tiered platforms. “The Garden,” as it is called, is a dark and moody, yet quirky, cabaret lounge. This is the world of Groove Tonic’s Australian Premiere of Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns.
Myths and Hymns is a cycle of songs based on a work entitled Saturn Returns: a concert, originally produced by the Joseph Papp Public Theatre/New Shakespeare Festival and George C. Wolfe in 1998. The piece however, is probably best known for the 1999 studio recording, featuring the vocal talents of artists such as Mandy Patinkin, Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, Theresa McCarthy and Guettel himself, among others. Inspired by the texts of an old Baptist Hymnal and Greek Myths, the work is a loosely structured cycle of songs with no inherent dramatic through-line.
Groove Tonic, under the musical direction of Luke Steward and stage direction of Emily Paterson, have assembled an ensemble of eight actor/musicians, Victor Brincat, Natalie Calia, Ryan Leahy, Julie Marr, Stephen McMahon, Lucy O’Brien, Renee Pope-Monro, and Steward himself. These jack-of-all-trade musicians (yes, most play multiple instruments) accompany themselves as they perform the songs. This approach is most associated with the work of director John Doyle as seen in the 2006 revival of Sondheim’s Company. Steward utilises this aesthetic to explore the actor/musician relationship in a performance-as-research context for his Master's. These contraints result in what I can only refer to as ‘no small achievement.’ Guettel’s music is often not performer friendly, and this cast perform it, vocally and instrumentally, from memory. One of the most exciting aspects of the production is the innate sense of trust that can be felt amongst the group of performers. They have no conductor to lead them, and they only have themselves to lean on if things go awry. There is risk involved here, and the ensemble are actively working and listening throughout so that the precarious ball, the music, isn’t dropped.
Guettel’s music is varied, yet it is all distinctly within his own unique melodic and harmonic palate. The range of styles, with their melodic and harmonic demands, pose some challenges to both performers and audience. Unfortunately, this production of Myths and Hymns isn’t perfect in this regard. The actor/musician aesthetic places firm constraints on casting, and sacrifices concerning quality of singer versus that of musician must be made. It is clear that all the performers have strengths, but some are not as strong vocally as others, and some of the ensemble vocal work is questionable (although that could be Guettel’s use of unconventional harmony and my not perfect ear). These moments aside, there are some absolute gems in this performance.
Paterson’s direction provides enough dramatic substance to sustain the piece, creating some minor through-lines, surrounded by vignettes, populating “The Garden” with the folk who work and play there. One of the most striking reinterpretations of myth occurs early in the production with “Icarus”. Here we have the tale of a father warning his son not to be become overly confident too soon, and to stay in his shadow so as not to fly too close to the sun. In the myth, Icarus does not heed his father’s words; with his wings burned by the sun, he falls to his death. Paterson grounds the number, with Icarus drawn to the light of a girl sitting at the bar. True to mythical form, he is ‘burned’ by the girl as the song concludes. This relationship sets up a loose through-line encompassing a number of songs, culminating in the moving “Come to Jesus.” Another, slightly looser thread is established during “Hero and Leander” (which unfortunately did not end in a multi-million dollar drowning effect as Leander is lost beneath the waves), that sets up the waltz of longing “How Can I Lose You.” This song feels like a delightful nod, on composer Guettel’s behalf, to his grandfather Richard Rogers. The direction is often detailed. One girl obsessively fiddles with her iPhone at a number of moments, only to have us realise during “Awaiting You” that she is desperately awaiting the call from ‘that’ guy. I hoped for the phone to ring at the end of the number, but alas, she is still waiting. Sometimes it is the vocal acrobatics, the sense of daring on behalf of the performers, that is thrilling. This can be a bit hit-and-miss at times, but some of this vocal music would challenge the finest of singers.
You will note that I am deliberately not singling out performers. This is because it is truly an ensemble effort (If you want to know who is involved in these specific examples, get yourself to the Revolt Artspace). The implicit sense of trust, and the ensemble story telling are the true highlights of the piece. Steward has thought through the instrumental arrangements, specifically designed for the ensemble and the production plays with and challenges each individual's strengths. The virtually a cappella “Sisyphus” in which Sisyphus recounts his frustrations at eternally pushing a rock uphill is accompanied primarily by his ‘Angel-like’ tabletop drumming. Most of the singing is unamplified, and most of the time the performers adequately cut through the accompaniment. However, there are unfortunately moments where the instrumentation overrides the singer, or the pitch is too low and lyrics are lost.
Ultimately though, this production of Myths and Hymns is an achievement, and I applaud Groove Tonic for creating an avenue through which this score is able to be heard. And “The Garden” is, to paraphrase the song “There’s a Land,” truly a place where people come to play. And this is where all the pieces come together. “The Garden” is not the name of the room in which the piece is performed, it is the fictional realisation of Steward and Paterson’s vision for Myths and Hymns. A fully created, incredibly detailed, lounge in which the players can play. If you do not know Myths and Hymns, this is your chance to discover it. If you are familiar, go and discover Guettel gems that are not included on the recording such “Life is But a Dream” and “Build a Bridge.” Or just go and experience the Revolt Artspace. But go.