The story of the Buddha informs this intriguing and well-produced musical at the New York Musical Festival about a modern-day female spiritual leader. But it’s not until the last fifth of the show that we realize what aspect of the Buddha’s life most struck Tanya Shaffer, who wrote the earnest script, and Vienna Teng, who composed the delightfully eclectic score. It was when future Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who had been sheltered from the world by his father the king, left his home and family behind to help alleviate suffering in the world.
How would we feel if a 21st century Buddha sacrificed their connections to their loved ones for the sake of strangers? And would we feel differently if that Buddha were a woman?
Is it possible, the authors ask in a program note, for someone to be both enlightened and flawed? “And how can we integrate the Buddha’s principle that attachment causes suffering with the intuitive notion that it is those very attachments that give meaning to our lives?”
All of these are substantive and provocative questions. The challenge is how to address them in a musical.
In “The Fourth Messenger,” Raina (Samia Mounts), an intern at “Debunk Nation Magazine,” convinces her editor Sam (Alan Gillespie) to let her investigate the spiritual teacher, Mama Sid (a terrific Nancy Anderson.)
“What do you have on her?” Sam asks
“A hunch.” Raina says of Mama Sid “she’s hiding something.”
And so she is, as we learn after Raina becomes ensconced with Mama Sid and her followers. I won’t say more except that the big revelation definitely took me by surprise, but doesn’t pass the plausibility test.
If the twist makes the plot of “The Fourth Messenger” less sturdy than its themes, the musical is very nearly redeemed by its musical numbers. Director Matt August and choreographer Natalie Malotke put the show’s talented nine-member cast to good use, and musical director Jesse Lozano makes the most of Vienna Teng’s music, a pleasing mix of heavenly hymns, folk, rock, jazz, ballads and delicious touches: When there’s a flashback to an old flame, he sings a song tinged with tango; when the singer is remembering a young child, the song sounds like a nursery rhyme.
There is enough beauty here that my hope is “The Fourth Messenger” lives on past the New York Musical Festival — after extensive rewrites.
video from a rehearsal:
The Fourth Messenger is on stage at Theatre Row through Sunday, July 23, 2017