What’s to come of musicals after the young guns have taken over? In terms of new musicals, everything of late has been trending towards young characters. The trend started with A Chorus Line, was brought back to prominence by Rent, and recently bombarded Broadway with Spring Awakening, In the Heights, and the now-closed Passing Strange and [title of show]. I’ve always had a probably irrational bias against musicals, perhaps brought on by being a lifelong New Yorker seeing my theater scene invaded by out-of-towners coming to see Les Miz, Phantom, Lion King, Wicked, and nothing else.
A few years out of this city will clean that palate, and after seeing some fantastic Chicago takes on the genre (including one, The Adding Machine, which I actually saw in New York City), I returned to New York in the fall committed to overcoming my bias once and for all. Perhaps the fact that I passed A Tale of Two Cities on the way to the 45th Street Theater to see Villa Diodati (the last performance was Oct. 4) was a bad sign. But I could hardly have made a worse choice for the only New York Music Festival show to see. With young energy suddenly emerging in musical theater, Villa Diodati seemed at least 50 years out of date.
It’s hard to do period pieces with a straight face anymore, and with Collette Inez and Mira Spektor’s book injecting some contemporary touches of emotion and lechery into the lives of Mary and Percy Shelly and Lord Byron, you’d think Villa Diodati would at least have a sense of humor. But it has none, instead trying to create a big romantic spectacle about a subject that’s tragic, but not all that romantic. The result is an utter slog, maybe the longest 80-minute play I have ever sat through.
Spektor’s music can only be described as soporific, and the lyrics reek with language that seems intentionally from another period (and I'm not talking about the lyrics taken from Bryon, Shelley, and Wordsworth themselves). It seems that the play’s creators thought that a love of period drama and interest in Mary Shelley’s life would be enough to make a solid drama. A mix of obsolete speech and placid living are a product of this focus. I’m so burnt out by this generation’s use of ironic humor that I look for sincerity in every art work I absorb. But sincerity about a subject that’s nearly 200 years old is not the answer, especially when it’s performed in a forum dedicated to creative new theater.
Villa Diodati left me wondering if classical musical theater, the kind that built Broadway, can ever return to vitality other than as tourist fodder. There’s certainly a place for that kind of theater, but in terms of being something boldly new, it seems its time has passed. It’s not a matter of time period either; Spring Awakening takes place in the 19th century too, but it has so much life, in both its music and book, that its relevance to the present age never comes into question. Villa Diodati, by contrast, seems like what Frankenstein would be if Dr. Frankenstein had never injected life into his creature.
Villa Diodati, music by Mira J. Spektor; lyrics by Colette Inez; book by Spektor and Inez. Directed by Rob Urbinati; musical direction by Thomas Carlo Bo; sets by Andis Gjoni; lights by Je Nash; costumes by Sidney Shannon; sound by David M. Lawson.
Starring Sarah Arikian, Mark Campbell, Elizabeth Cherry, Lauren Hauser, and Sal Sabella.