“I am tall when I’m young but short when I’m old. What am I?”
That’s the first of the three riddles that Sam (short for Samantha) poses to the mysterious woman in white in order to free her sister Emily from the woman’s clutches.
“A candle,” the woman answers in triumph.
What’s not as easily solved is the riddle of “Between the Sea and Sky,” a musical written by an Australian named Luke Byrne being presented in a competently directed (and lovingly lit) production as part of the New York Musical Festival. Byrne’s music is impressive in its variety and appeal – from a classical-sounding art song to 1930s song-and-dance number to funky jazz to sea shanty, many suggesting the mysteries and allure of the sea. His lyrics are largely straightforward if undistinguished, except when he tries for the lyrical; then they’re incoherent. But his book is all over the place — an over-flavored stew of young adult novel, mystery, Grimm’s Fairy Tale, satire, even a primer on Shakespeare’s The Tempest – and winds up making no sense at all.
Their parents have just told nine-year-old Emily (Jessica Turk) and 14-year-old Sam (Jenny Rose Baker) that they’re getting divorced. The sisters are sent to spend the summer with their paternal grandmother (Barbara McCulloh) at a seaside town known as Diamond Beach. There they learn of the 30-year-old mystery of Mary and her daughter Charlotte Dawson, who may have drowned by venturing too close to underwater caves (thus adding a touch of timeliness to the tale, given the recent rescue in Thailand.) To help her solve the mystery, Emily enlists the help of local boy Vincent (Thaddeus Kolwicz, whose presence suggests a charmingly awkward adolescent romance that never materializes.) Together they seek answers from local lighthouse keeper and librarian Pat (also McCulloh.) In the process, Emily disappears.
“The Tempest” asserts a large presence in ‘Between the Sea and Sky,” whose title is a kind of translation of one of its lines, “Twixt the green sea and the azured vault.” Shakespeare’s play figures in the plot of the musical, which also borrows from The Tempest’s themes, setting, supernatural aura and even some of its lines. The musical’s use of The Tempest is also a good way to point out some of its musical’s flaws.
Grandma insists that Sam try out for the local play, although she can’t remember its name – “I believe this year it’s “The Storm”? “The Magical Island”? “Ariel and the Shipwreck”?
“The Tempest,” Sam says, reading the leaflet.
“Oh yeah, that’s it,” Grandma says.
Yet a couple of scenes later, Grandma speaks knowledgeably about “The Tempest,” and it turns out that she was the original owner of the Complete Works that we earlier saw Emily give as a gift to Sam.
This gives a taste of the carelessness and lack of continuity that get their full expression in the resolution to the increasingly complicated plot.
When Emily shows up for rehearsals, the four locals putting on “The Tempest” are all seagulls. They appear throughout “Between the Sea and Sky,” occasionally tilting their heads oddly in what I take to be subtle seagull-like behavior. The seagulls’ rehearsal is meant to be a satire of community theater a la Waiting for Guffman, as well as a Shakespearean-like comic subplot (except there’s no plot in the subplot.) But this fanciful touch just furthers the impression that Byrne’s first musical is a collection of disparate ideas being forced rather than forged into a single show.
“Between the Sea and Sky”is on stage at Theatre Row as part of the New York Musical Festival. Remaining performances: today (Saturday, August 4) at 1; Sunday at 10:30 a.m.