At the end of the tuneful, rousing, and spectacular modern musical adaptation of Homer’s three thousand year old epic poem about a ten-year journey home, everybody from the cast is on stage or in the aisles, dancing and singing “Welcome home.” Yes, that includes the terrific leads, Brandon Victor Dixon as the warrior and wanderer Odysseus and Karen Olivo as his long-suffering wife Penelope, as well as the handful of other professional cast members certified by Actors Equity. But it also means:
the Marching Cobras marching band
the D.R.E.A.M. Ring hip-hop dancer-contortionists
the gospel singers from The Bobby Lewis Ensemble
the dancers from Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana II
the riders from the Old Bones Motorcycle Club, N.Y.C. Fire Riders, and W.L.C. Crew,
members of Tada! Youth Theater, New York Youth Symphony, Brownsville Recreation Center, the Children’s Aid Society, Dreamyard Project, Domestic Workers United, and the Fortune Society
There are, in short, hundreds of New Yorkers who perform in The Odyssey, from all five boroughs, and their performances erase the line between amateur and professional, in good and clever ways. This is surely thanks in large measure to the direction of Lear deBessonet, who conceived The Odyssey and developed the department within the Public Theater that produced it, Public Works.
Public Works also brought us The Winter’s Tale last year, another community party for the Labor Day weekend.
There is a difference, though. Last year’s musical adaptation more or less by-passed the script of what is admittedly one of Shakespeare’s least admired plays, cutting out huge chunks of it, and substituting the music and lyrics of Todd Almond. Almond wrote both the script and the songs for The Odyssey as well, and performs as The Singer, who functions as both a narrator and MC. The Odyssey is also, like The Winter’s Tale, a loose, vernacular, and condensed adaptation, running little more than 100 minutes with no intermission. But The Odyssey can be more easily embraced; it is not possible to put the original (or at least the earliest known) text of the Homeric epic on the stage at the Delacorte – it’s in Ancient Greek after all – and more justification for turning it into a musical: Homer is believed to have sung it to begin with. One can appreciate many of Almond’s modern-day jokes and shtick; the rest can be forgiven, because of his impressively varied score – soul, folk, rap, country, tango, pop ballads, even a lovely symphonic arrangement performed by the New York Youth Symphony accompanied by Almond’s narration a la “Peter and the Wolf,” a highlight for me.
Almond’s Odyssey keeps the basic structure of the poem. In the first half hour, we are in Ithaca, whose citizens are feeling the 20-year absence of their king no less than does their queen Penelope. Most assume Odysseus has died, either in the 10-year war (the subject of Homer’s Iliad) or in the 10-year journey home. That is why Penelope has a mob of coarse suitors (that’s where the members of the motorcycle clubs come in, and the just-as-gruff Lucas Caleb Rooney as Antinous.) They push for Penelope to wed one of them, and meanwhile are “eating all the king’s pizza and corn dogs.” Athena (“portrayed” by the Bobby Lewis Ensemble, standing on a second tier overlooking the stage) watches over Telemachus (Jabari Johnson), Odysseus’s vulnerable son who has never met his father.
It’s about a third of the way through the show that we meet Odysseus, who has washed ashore in Phaeacia at the very moment they are celebrating Odysseus Day (cue the terrific D.R.E.A.M. Ring dance crew.) Rescued by the royalty of Phaeacia, Odysseus eventually reveals his identity, delighting the Prince (Travis Raeburn), who takes a selfie with him. Odysseus is asked what has happened to delay his journey home, and that’s when we get the scenes that most of us surely remember best from the poem. We see Odysseus outmaneuver the ravenous Cyclops (the amusing Andy Grotelueschen, holding up a pole with a big eye attached); resist the seduction of Circe and the Sirens (this is brilliantly set to a tango score, climaxed by the Flamenco Vivo dancers); survive the monsters Scylla and Charybdis (we see in a a kind of shadow puppetry that is the least effective staging of the challenges.) After these tests, he finally returns home disguised as a beggar and wins back his rightful place, after he aces a contest requiring super-human marksmanship (a scene wittily enhanced by the Marching Cobras.)
In all this, Brandon Victor Dixon feels like the ideal leading man, dashing and despairing, in heroic countenance and exquisite voice. Dixon is at the moment best known as the lead in the Off-Broadway production The Scottsboro Boys and on Broadway as Berry Gordy in Motown, but he will soon star as Eubie Blake in Shuffle Along.
Karen Olivo, the four-time Broadway veteran (Rent, in the Heights, Tony winner for West Side Story) who took a much-publicized but mercifully short break from acting, shows a new maturity in her role as Penelope, and the same strong, moving voice. She also plays the seductress Circe in a red dress and black mask and a whatever-Lola-wants verve.
It takes nothing away from these splendid actors to locate the central thrill of The Odyssey in Central Park on a beautiful night to be what a former mayor called the gorgeous mosaic of New York City, the New Yorkers both dancing in free form on the stage and sitting for free in the seats.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged
Central Park’s Delacorte Theater
Book, Music & Lyrics by Todd Almond
Conceived and Directed by Public Works Director Lear deBessonet
Choreographer Lorin Latarro-Kopell
Scenic and Lighting Design Justin Townsend
Costume Design Paul Carey
Sound Design Acme Sound Partners
Wig and Makeup Design Dave Bova
Cast: Todd Almond, Brandon Victor Dixon, Andy Grotelueschen, Karen Olivo, and Lucas Caleb Rooney. Cameo group performances by The Bobby Lewis Ensemble, The D.R.E.A.M. Ring, Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana II, The Marching Cobras, The New York Youth Symphony and TADA! Youth Theater
Running time: 105 minutes, no intermission
September 4 through 7th only, alas.