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A CurtainUp Review

Saturn Returns: A Concert
By Les Gutman

Every so often, a person I would call a "human bridge" materializes to help us move  (culturally, politically, philosophically, etc.) from one place, where we are comfortable,  to another, where we may feel slightly disoriented. Such people carry with them enough of the old to provide us a frame of reference for accepting (and even appreciating) the new. Adam Guettel just may be one of the bridge people.

That Guettel is the grandson of Richard Rodgers (and the son of Mary) has no doubt advanced his profile as much as it has burdened him with an unavoidable standard against which he may always be measured. Too, it provides him -- organically at least -- with "enough of the old" to satisfy many reluctant bridge-crossers.

A couple of seasons ago, Guettel made his off-Broadway musical theater debut with Floyd Collins. (Although it appeared onstage only for a short time, the resulting CD, on the Nonesuch label, is one of the most elaborate musical theater recordings of recent memory. A small tour, ending in New York in a year or so, is planned.) He now follows with Saturn Returns at The Public Theater. It is a theatrical concert consisting of nineteen songs, loosely connected by a common sense that "something is missing" in his life. Saturn is directed by Guettel's Floyd Collins collaborator, Tina Landau, whose work here is as clever as it is entertaining.

What the concert reveals is a musical working-out by a young, exceptionally talented composer. Unconstrained by any particular form, or the need to tell any particular story, Guettel flexes his musical muscles and demonstrates a keen ability to develop melodies that are fresh, contemporary, interesting and inventive, and that also convey a strong sense of meaning. Covering a wide range of styles, they soar, they glide, they tease, they excite. While some seem more inspired than others, the motivation to walk across the bridge, to hear more, is compelling.

Saturn's songs emanate from two main so" urces: myths (Icarus, Pegasus, Sisyphus, etc.), some with lyrics by Ellen McHugh, and hymns, based on a 19th Century Presbyterian hymnal. Guettel's own lyrics are sometimes solemn and sometimes fun, sometimes satisfying and sometimes not. To be fair, writing about feelings without sounding trite or sophomoric, is tough stuff even for an experienced lyricist. He deserves time or, following in his grandfather's footsteps, the collaboration of the best lyricists of his day.

The performances of the six vocalists and nine musicians (under the enthusiastic direction of Ted Sperling, with superb orchestrations by Don Sebesky and Jamie Lawrence) are thrilling. Better guides across Guettel's bridge are unimaginable. Jose Llana, who attracted attention as Gabey in The Public's once and future On the Town, is terrific in his expressive mythological character portrayals; Annie Golden brings the concert's comic level to its highest moment in "How Can I Lose You" and Theresa McCarthy's fascinating voice stands out from the crowd here far more than it did as one of the three Kates in Titanic. Vivian Cherry, Lawrence Clayton and Bob Stillman round out the talented cast in fine form.

WhereGuettel's name ends up in the hierarchy of musical theater composers, whether up in the stratosphere with his grandfather or down in the ranks of the obscure, it is of course too soon to tell. To have the opportunity to see the work of an individual with this much promise, at this stage of his career and this generously adorned, is a tremendous gift from the Public Theater, one that should be encouraged and hopefully repeated.

by Adam Guettel 
Directed by Tina Landau 
Musical Direction by Ted Sperling
with Vivian Cherry, Lawrence Clayton, Annie Golden, Jose Llana, Theresa McCarthy and Bob Stillman 
Set and Costume Design by James Schuette 
Projections by Jan Hartley
Lighting Design by Blake Burba 
Sound Design by Stuart J. Allyn 
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (212) 260-2400 
Seen at a final preview; opened April 9, 1998 thru April 26

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