Harmonizing lives and loves

The Alchemists -- A New Musical

Book by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel
Music and lyrics by Peter Mills
Prospect Theater Company
Directed by Cara Reichel
Theater for the New City
155 First Ave. (212/898-4444; www.smarttix.com)
Equity showcase (closes May 18)
Review by David Mackler

Nothing in Prospect Theater Company's production of The Alchemists was done half-measure -- not the book (stuffed with enough plot for three shows); not the music, spread out over 18 songs, not counting reprises; not the lush sets (Scott Aronow), perfect period costumes (Sidney J. Shannon), or expressive, colorful lighting (Ji-youn Chang). In fact, it was all a little too much, but it's also a shameless wallow in a resolutely old-fashioned style of theater. And it was a pleasure to watch the plot unfold over the 20 scenes, which shift back and forth from 1807 through 1824.

The setting is Foxwood Hall, everything you'd expect of an English estate. The master's two young sons, Stanley and Nicholas, are educated with the family pastor's two young sons, and introduced into the mix is Anne Quintrell, the master's new ward. The actors who played the characters as children (Jordan Wolfe, Joshua Marmer, Seamus Boyle, Jonathan Demar, and Danielle Melanie Brown) were quite believable as the young versions of their elder selves (Benjamin Eakeley, Damian Long, Tony Vallés, Black Hacker, and Kelly Snyder). Personalities are revealed courtesy Mills's songs (better musically than lyrically), and while the plot is an amalgam of the Brontës, Dickens, and the like (as well as musical versions thereof), the book's structure keeps attention just where it's needed, revealing information that keeps everything in focus as the overstuffed plot comes together.

And while the plot of four boys/men and one girl/woman has some expected elements, it also is surprising enough that the audience was never ahead of it. The music includes such character declarations as Anne's "I Can Play This Part," as she ruminates (to herself and the audience) on her impending marriage to Stanley, and Nathaniel's "Young Man's Prayer," when the young and older versions of the character live/relive feelings of doubt and longing. In fact, the strongest parts of The Alchemists were when the different generations occupied the stage simultaneously, giving additional depth and meaning to all the goings-on.

Necessarily, some characters will stand out, and some musical numbers were better than others. When they coincided, the results were glorious musical theater, like Nathan's ode to the "Elixir" the doctor has prescribed (laudanum), complete with hallucinations; or when letters were read/sung in the splendid "Yours," -- numbers that progress the plot, reveal character, and entertained tremendously.

Much of Cara Reichel's direction seemed simply to stage the plot and keep characters from bumping into each other, but with a plot this intriguing, and sturdy, goodhearted playing by the whole cast, what was most surprising was how unapologetically it was all presented, and how well it hung together. For while there's a touch of political correctness to the resolution, there's nothing winking or postmodern about it. And if the metaphor of alchemy, making gold out of base metals, is stretched a little thin, it doesn't get in the way of the characters' triumphs and tragedies. It was a pleasure to see so much accomplished musically and dramatically, and if it was ultimately only whimsical, it was presented with an admirable conviction that's rarely seen.

Also with Larry Brustofski, Richard Todd Adams, Carol A. Hickey, Erica Wright, Navida Stein, Peter Maris, Greg Horton, and fine piano accompaniment by Mills and musical director Daniel Feyer. The music cries out for orchestration.

Box Score:

Book: 2/Music: 2/Lyrics: 1
Directing: 1
Performance: 1
Sets: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2003 David Mackler