Gods n' mortals just don't mix. From Greek tragedies up through Olympus on My Mind, whenever romantic entanglements linked a deity and a nobody, everybody suffered. The theme is so common, it's even found in Eastern mythology, as evidenced by The Silver River, a new musical based on an ancient Chinese tale of forbidden love.
In the myth and in the show, the Goddess Weaver has a cozy arrangement with the Silver River (aka the Milky Way). She'd spin stars for it, and in exchange, the world bathed in constant golden sunlight. The goddess also got to bathe in the River once a year. Unfortunately, one year she fell in love with a human cowherd and got so involved, she lapsed on her star manufacturing. This caused darkness to fall across the universe, a condition cured only when the Goddess' dad, the Jade Emperor, forced the Silver River to change its position. The bad news? The Goddess and her boyfriend were forever separated (by night and day).
Adapting this supernatural story to a form that blends Western and Chinese opera are Tony-winning dramatist David Henry Hwang and composer Bright Sheng. First developed at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 1997, the musical now gets a full and revised staging at the Prince Music Theatre in Philadelphia. Previews began April 5 for an opening April 7 and a run through April 15.
Ong Keng Sen, artistic director of Singapore's TheatreWorks since 1988, directs Silver River, which features choreography by dancer Muna Tseng. Anita Yavich will supply the colorful costumes, Christine Jones has designed a set that includes a 20-foot waterfall, and Scott Zielinski will create the lighting design.
Featured as the narrator of the one-act piece is Karen Kandel, best known for her acclaimed, multi-character turn in Mabou Mines' Peter and Wendy. Also in the cast are James Patterson as the Cowherd and choreographer Tseng as the Goddess (whose voice will come from the flute-like instrument, the "pipa"). After each performance at the Prince, composer Sheng and company members will demonstrate aspects of Chinese music and costuming. Hwang's previous operatic experience includes two with Philip Glass (1000 Airplanes on the Roof and The Voyage), though he's best-known for the Tony-winning drama M. Butterfly and for the Tony-nominated Golden Child. Shanghai-born composer and conductor Sheng has had modern classical pieces premiere at, among others, the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
For tickets ($30-$35) and information on The Silver River at Prince Music Theatre, 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, call (215) 569-9700.
The Prince season started off with 3hree, an evening of three one act musicals, followed in late winter by Charlotte: Life? Or Theater? adapted from a true story set in the south of France in WWII. Elise Thoron wrote the book and lyrics and Gary S. Fagin the music for this look at Charlotte Solomon, a Jewish artist in hiding who paints more than 800 pictures during her flight. Ted Sperling directs this world premiere.
Also due at the Prince this season:
• May 12-27, 2001: A revival of Candide, directed by Ben Levit. Though never exactly a success on Broadway, the musical retains major historical interest, mainly because of its best songs and pedigree: Lillian Hellman and Hugh Wheeler adapting Voltaire, with Leonard Bernstein scoring and John LaTouche, Richard Wilbur and Stephen Sondheim contributing lyrics.
• Closing the Prince season, June 12-24, 2001, will be Our Sinatra, a revue of tunes made famous by Ol’ Blue Eyes. The cabaret show, directed by Kurt Stamm, is still running at Off-Broadway’s Blue Angel Theatre. Supervised by Richard Maltby Jr. (Fosse, Ain't Misbehavin'), the performer-conceived production is a tour of some 50 songs (full tunes and medley versions) associated with Frank Sinatra, from "Witchcraft" to "Time After Time" to "These Foolish Things," and more. Our Sinatra started as an August 1999 cabaret show (seen at the famed Algonquin Oak Room), conceived and performed by pianist Eric Comstock, vocalist Christopher Gines and vocalist Hilary Kole, who will all reprise their performances in Philadelphia. Stamm and Maltby helped shape the current version, making some cuts and adding a couple of different tunes.
Stamm told Playbill On-Line (Dec. 8, 1999) that the production celebrates some of the lesser-played Sinatra works, rather than ubiquitous hits such as "New York, New York."
"We're steering clear of the stuff that is so cliched," said Stamm, "but there are hints of the hits in some places. It's more about digging in and finding the hidden gems, finding the orphan songs that weren't known until he recorded them." Consequently, listen for "These Foolish Things," "To Love and Be Loved," "Without a Song" and "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?"
Stamm, who is an artistic associate of Maltby's, first heard the trio when popular song historian Jonathan Schwartz recommended the performers for a Maltby-directed tribute to Jimmy Van Heusen in the Lincoln Center "American Songbook" series in October.
Next season at the Prince already has its first show booked: Lady in the Dark, starring Andrea Marcovicci. The staging has been long enough in the works for Marcovicci to have announced plans for the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin musical during her concerts that opened the Prince’s current season.
Since starting in 1984 as the American Music Theatre Festival, the Prince Music Theatre has produced more than 80 musicals, 49 of them world premieres. Among the mountings were Band in Berlin and last season’s Running Man.
For subscription and ticket information, call (215) 972-1000.
— By David Lefkowitz
and Christine Ehren