MTM's "Hephaestus Continues its Development Journey
Similar to the epic journey of the titular Greek god — from Mount Olympus to the mortal world and back — Music Theater of Madison has traveled a long ways with Hephaestus. Nathan Fosbinder’s original musical was work-shopped by the company last summer, revised and retooled with audience input over the winter, previewed at area public libraries at the end of July, and received its official world premiere this weekend at the Memorial Union Play Circle. Directed by MTM Executive Director Meghan Randolph, the fully produced show continues to feel like a work in progress — one that will benefit from further editing, strengthening the book and refining the journeys of many of the characters so the narrative is more focused and compelling.
A Madison native, Fosbinder was evidently a fan of the Disney musical Hercules as a kid. Perhaps it was this early introduction to gods and goddesses that led him to round up some musical theater friends and improvise a story about Greek mythology for one of his classes at Berklee College of Music’s Boston Conservatory. After two hours of playing around with scenes and characters, inspiration struck and Fosbinder realized he was most interested in the god of fire and the forge, the physically disfigured child of Hera and Zeus who was exiled from Olympus and then returned. This exercise grew into a two-hour musical jam-packed with songs featuring the aforementioned Hera and Zeus, along with other well-known deities Hermes, Athena, Dionysus, Ares, Aphrodite and others.
Fosbinder’s music and lyrics throughout the piece illustrate both formidable talent and excellence in craft. The accessible melodies sound like they are influenced by Andrew Lloyd Weber, Stephen Sondheim and Alan Mencken and the lyrics do a good job of expressing each character’s thoughts without straining to rhyme. Unfortunately the majority of the songs explore the inner life of the gods or describe past traumas instead of moving the story forward with action and conflict happening in the moment. This bogs down the show with exposition and a focus on emotional states rather than showing the audience a compelling narrative.
This slow, introspective story is hindered again by the uneven cast and static staging. The performers with advanced vocal training clearly stood out — namely SaraLynn Evenson (Hera), Emily Glick (Demeter) Bryanna Plaisir (Kabiero) and Kelsey Anne Johnson (Aphrodite), just as Andy White (Ares) appeared to have more experience acting than the others. Vibrant costume design by Brenna Farmer was also visually engaging. Clothed in simple, colorful tunics, leather sandals and iconic head wear, most of the gods look like they just walked out of a painting by the Italian masters.
But these talents couldn’t infuse needed energy and urgency into the show, which also had a few other problems in plot and execution. Trouble balancing mics on opening night meant that soloists were often overwhelmed by the full chorus or the six-person instrumental ensemble. Meghan Randolph’s serviceable direction did little more than position performers for their solos in between group numbers filled with basic, amateurish choreography by Hayley Mason.
As the main character, an earnest Caleb Mathura gives a performance filled with emotion, but not quite supported by his young voice. Like the piece itself, he is full of potential that hopefully will be realized in the future.