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The Pursuit of Persephone
By Elyse Sommer
In 1913 a young Midwestern Princeton undergraduate named F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his first show for the famous Triangle Club. He also fell in love with a debutante named Ginevra King. Though Ginevra proved to be forever beyond his reach some might argue that he didn't really lose her since she became his role model for Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and her side of their two-year correspondence saw life in the pages of some of his short stories.
The whole cliquish Ivy League social scene on the cusp of World War One inspired Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise. Now, more than ninety years later, Carla Reichel and Peter Mills, whose own romantic and professional partnership began in 1993 when they were both Princeton undergraduates and members of the still existent Triangle Club, have turned Fitzgerald's college years into a musical. The collaborative venture, directed by Reichel and written with composer and lyricist Mills, takes its title, The Pursuit of Persephone, from that first Fitzgerald show for the Triangle Club, In Pursuit of Priscilla.
Under the auspices of Prospect Theater Company, of which Reichel is artistic director, Persephone's debut is a quite lavishly staged showcase that anyone with an interest in musically rich, smartly constructed, original musical theater should see before this limited run ends. As with any first public airing, there are some problems, most a case of too much of a good thing, but none that couldn't be fixed with editing.
As stated in the program's notes, the creative duo's chief aim was to "to capture the sense of the ephemeral nature of youth and passion." They have been true to that aim and in so doing have brought Fitzgerald and his Princeton friends to vivid life -- especially his best buddies Edmond Wilson and John Peale Bishop who also achieved considerable renown, Wilson as a critic and Bishop as a poet. (Bishop's poems included an elegy to Fitzgerald entitled "The Hours." Those familiar with Fitzgerald's work and life story, will also recognize ideas that dominated his writing taking shape. The music beautifully reflects the spirit and flavor of the period with a fine mix of ballads, novelty numbers for solos, duet and ensembles to move the story forward.
The story begins in Hollywood in 1937, with an older, recently off the wagon Fitzgerald. The famous wild times with his wife, the beautiful but mentally unstable Zelda, and his best work behind him, he's now unhappily employed as a screenwriter. With Zelda institutionalized and his old flame Ginevra recently divorced, he's asked her to meet him in the lounge of a Hollywood Hotel where the bartender in a witty bit of double casting is his erstwhile rival for her affections. This set-up is the device for dramatizing his remembrances of being a small town outsider eager to widen his horizons by becoming an Ivy League insider and winning the season's top debutante. While the nineteen-year-old Fitzgerald takes front and center stage, his older persona continues to hover around the edges of the remembered scenes, and several times breaking into songs -- notably, a beautiful solo, "Paradise for Now" in Act One and "I Could Never Let You Go", a lovely shadow duet with the young Scott near the end.
The remembered scenes include Triangle Club excerpts and a football number which are great fun though it's the Princeton razzle dazzle stuff that would benefit most from trimming. Reichel has managed to assemble a large (twenty in all) talented cast. Chris Fuller is a charming Scott (he actually looks a little like the real Fitzgerald) and Jessica Grové is a pert and pretty as his elusive love. The fact that Fuller and Daniel Yates, his older alter ego, don't resemble each other at all doesn't matter, especially since Yates is the show's most powerful singer and a splendid actor. Special bravos are also due to David Abeles as Edmund Wilson and Piper Goodeve as his romantic (a Mills/Reichel invented character) interest, and Ginevra's finishing school roommate.
Sidney Shannon's costumes add to the show's visual pleasures. While Daniel Feyer's excellent little orchestra is positioned to the side and well above the stage, with a curtain to presumable soften the sound, it nevertheless is often too loud to prevent the lyrics from getting lost. Perhaps a brass instrument less and an extra violin would alleviate this problem in future productions. If Persephone has the continued life it deserves, I hope it will include the choreography by Tesha Buss, whose talent, like Mills and Reichel's is Broadway worthy.
The Pursuit of Persephone could use a more descriptive, less vaguely highbrow sounding title (shades of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), but make no mistake about it -- this is an intelligent, well-crafted book musical, but it's continuously melodic, not operatic, and highly entertaining. At $15 a ticket, it's also the best buy in town.
Ilyria, another Mills/Reichel collaboration, reviewed at CurtainUp at the New Jersey Shakespeare Theater.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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