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Those of us who read (and re-read) the d'Aulaires' "Book of Greek Myths" back in grade school know that the Greek gods, for all their impressive powers, were also a reflection of humanity — including some of our worst traits.
In other words, the pantheon is a petty pack of prideful perverts. Or, if alliteration is not your thing, the Greek gods were a most dysfunctional family.
Music Theatre of Madison's production of "Hephaestus" — Nathan Fosbinder's original musical (running through August 24 in the Memorial Union Play Circle) — refracts the "not all gods are nice" vibe through the story of the titular god of fire and the forge. You know, the one everyone tends to overlook.
It's the world premiere of the first-ever original work developed and produced by MTM, the product of two-plus years of workshopping, honing and tweaking. Musically, the polish is blinding and the cast's voices are beautiful. From a plot perspective, however, the show still feels a little unfocused.
In the actual Greek myths, Hephaestus isn't just crippled, he's also fug ugly, adding to the sense of shock that he finds himself married to Aphrodite, the most gorgeous of the gods. Here, that's far from the case.
Caleb Mathura, who plays the god of fire like a wounded puppy craving acceptance and his mother's love, is both handsome and gifted with a gorgeous singing voice. Plus, he's got the talent to forge not just bitchin' weapons and armor, but ornate jewelry that would put the local Jared's to shame. The fact that his only discernable defects are a limp and an inferiority complex makes the disgust most of his fellow gods feel for him — they pull no punches in the finger-pointing musical number "Lame"— is a little hard to understand.
"If only they saw you for what your hands can do, instead of what your leg cannot," Ares (Andy White), tells Hephaeatus at one point. Wait. Isn't he the god or war, not wisdom?
The cast has a blast inhabiting their characters. Zeus (Shawn Goodman-Jones) is the skeezy womanizer we remember from the myths, working his way through his family members. Like Hermes (Kyle Michael James) the Loki of this story, he's got eyes for Aphrodite (Kelsey Anne Johnson). Hera (SaraLynn Evenson, singing and emoting with a force of will) isn't just a self-involved henpecking spouse, but a mom who suffers real anguish as she tries (and mostly fails) to do right by her children and keep her wayward husband in line. Demeter (Emily Glick), once the victim of that waywardness, matches Hera in vocal and scheming prowess.
Interestingly, Aphrodite, not Hephaestus, is the play's biggest puzzle. Johnson, whose voice soars on her solo numbers, plays her as both aloof and empathetic. She's concerned about both Hephaestus and Ares, but never seems to want to commit to a relationship with either of them.
The show's score is uplifting and beautiful. Fosbinder clearly knows how to compose achingly gorgeous love songs. "Her Song," the number that served as the inspiration for the show, is tear inducing, and Mathura brings down the first act with it. "Never Stop Holding Me," a duet between Johnson's Aphrodite and White's Ares, has a similar effect.
The plot is a little different story, however. Fosbinder made the decision to have White's Ares begin the play as Hephaestus's friend and ally before he devolves into a romantic rival for Aphrodite's hand. That's an interesting decision. Ares is almost always portrayed as a macho, bloodthirsty ass, but he also gets a dollop of audience sympathy as the God of War. Suddenly, we're being asked to root for two romantic heroes, and White's story starts to bump Mathura further into the background.
With nine gods in the house, it's a sure bet that a few of them are going to get the narrative short shrift, and that's exactly what happens. Athena (Leslie Cao) and Dionysus (Andi Janeway) get the show's coolest costumes but they spend the bulk of the play in chorus roles, setting scenes and schooling the audience on the rules of survival on Mount Olympus. That feels OK for Dionsysus, who was always a B-list god in the myths. But sidelining the goddess of wisdom seems like an odd choice. Each of them gets some solo singing time late in the show. When Cao finally lets loose on the song "Like Thunder," you find yourself wondering what the hell took so long.
The second act is all about Hephaestus' re-ascent of Mount Olympus to recon with the mothere who's wronged him and the woman he still loves. The resolution of those plot threads feels rushed and somewhat unearned. Kabiero (Bryanna Plaisir), a mortal Hephaestus encounters after Hera heaves him off Mount Olympus, convinces him that his powers derive from the sum of his experiences. That's a nice sentiment, but let's be honest: What guy in love was ever immediately liberated and empowered by having the object of his affection dump him? Not even the gods have that kind of emotional fortitude.
It's possible that "Hephaestus" will continue to evolve as it takes the next step in its journey, and maybe some of those plot problems will get ironed out before its next staging. What's clear at this point is that MTM and executive director Meghan Randolph deserve massive props for taking the risk and devoting resources to supporting high-quality original work like this, and that Fosbinder's got the compositional talent to do some truly amazing things. And hey, if you catch it now, you'll be able to say you were there on the god-squad ground floor.
Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com Due to a scheduling conflict, the author viewed a preview performance of "Hephaestus."
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