Sunday, July 24, 2016

Review: A Poe Double Feature

By Michael Block

Edgar Allan Poe is synonymous with mystery and thrill. But musical theater? How would Poe's tales live in a musical world? Find a pair of pieces that already live in a land of satire. Inspired by companion short stories "How to Write a Blackwood Article" and "A Predicament", Alan Harris and Mark Alan Swanson's A Scythe of Time is a gothic thriller with a tinge of humor.
With a book by Alan Harris and music and lyrics by Mark Alan Swanson, A Scythe of Time follows magazine editor Blackwood as he has garnered attention through his Blackwood Articles where writers share their experiences with death. Meanwhile rival editor Signora Psyche Zenobia must find a way to prevent her paper from going under. Her solution? A Blackwood Article! A Scythe of Time is virtually "Penny Dreadful" meets Sweeney Todd after drowning in the river of laughs. It also happens to be a rare circumstance of needing a second act. Harris had source material to work with and intertwine to create a full story. It's virtually dueling narratives that need to be adjusted in the timeline of the story though. Jumping back and forth from Blackwood to Zenobia hurts the momentum as, by the end, the focus is primarily on Zenobia. Her narrative is clear, his not so much. It might be a stronger decision to make Zenobia the focal point with Blackwood as the supporting character. It would also explain the little backstory for Blackwood's minion Malachi. As it stands now, Malachi's disappearance feels insanely unsatisfactory. He's a fascinating foil for Blackwood that a single line summation to his demise is unfortunate. There is an element of comedy automatically added when this style is put into musical form. And when you have a brilliant comedic actress, the humor spills out. Embrace the style and go bigger! There's a natural darkness and amplifying the comedy can help highlight this. The themes of infamy and death are dark but the situation is a perfect place for this discussion. Swanson's gothic rock score drives the story well. There are some great musical moments but nothing that really will be memorable. Swanson is missing that big moment. But maybe it's because the libretto doesn't have that part yet. The only place Swanson seems to falter is through the lyrics of the more presentational songs. They're just so silly.
photo by Russ Rowland
When you have two leads that are not only talented but embody the characters, you can't quite imagine anyone else ever playing the parts. If you didn't already know it, Lesli Margherita is a star. Her voice is pristine, her choices are bold, and her comedy is sublime. Margherita rightly stole the show as Zenobia. She lifted the character from page to stage with ease. It takes immense talent to be brilliant as a disembodied head. As Blackwood the proprietor of death, P.J. Griffith rocks and rolls. He is perfectly sinister, finding intrigue in the character. His swagger could be bigger to match the grandness of his paper rival. With the littlest of roles, Matt Dengler showcased his sweet tone as Malachi. Dengler left you wanting more. Like another scene before he goes "up." If you're aware of Poe's original then you know that Pompey, Zenobia's man servant, was written as a 3 foot tall black man who helped boost Zenobia into the hole of the clock tower. In this version, the team went in a different direction and made Pompey a short white man deeply and madly with Zenobia. Danny Rutigliano does a fantastic job waiting for his moment of glory. Because when he gets his time, he's brilliant. It's helpful that Rutigliano and Margherita have lovely chemistry. There may have been only four named people but Diana the poodle was a scene-stealer.
Director David Alpert made great use of the June Havoc stage, opting for a simplistic and clean presentation. With the balance of thriller and camp slightly out of whack, Alpert did a nice job marrying the two. The stage magic that was integral for the production was realized pretty well for this type of budget. Sure, you could see the holes, literally, but it worked. Starlet Jacobs’ set was effective for the space. The addition of the projections from Dan Scully was smart. And thankfully, the design was brilliant and polished. As was the period dress from Lindsay McWilliams. The dark, gothic elements made the characters come to life. And Zenobia's garb? Stunning. Sound designer David Margolin Lawson reminds just how important sound design is, especially in a musical.
A Scythe of Time looks dark on the outside. With a Poe draw, a mysterious title, and a story of death, the comedy is a bit unexpected. But it's what's desired. Alan Harris and Mark Alan Swanson's musical shows much promise.

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