Peter Kellogg’s latest musical-comedy adaptation, Penelope Or How the Odyssey Was Really Written, is a charming if lightweight comic version of Homer’s Greek epic The Odyssey told from the wife’s point of view. Kellogg, best known in New York for the award-winning Desperate Measure, a delightful country-western musical of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, worked with composer Stephen Weiner this time around who has created a pleasant seemingly derivative score. As directed and choreographed by Emily Maltby for The York Theatre Company, the cast playing iconic characters from Greek mythology gives an excellent account of themselves in this crowd-pleasing new musical. Strangely enough, Penelope is surprisingly faithful to its source material while giving us both a humorous and feminist take on the material.
Penelope is set entirely in Ithaca off the western coast of Greece. The royal palace of Odysseus who has been away for 20 years due to the Trojan War (and adventures that occurred afterwards) is beset by suitors for the hand of his wife, the loyal and faithful Penelope, for the past seven years. Eating her out of house and home, the suitors carouse and cause much mayhem. Penelope’s son Telemachus, who was a one-year-old child when his father left for the war, is afraid of blood and not much of a fighter, has had to put up with these roustabouts in his parents’ residence. He gets lessons in self-defense from his ladylove, the swine herder Daphne but she can’t cure his aversion to blood.
To put off the suitors, Penelope has been writing herself letters purportedly from Odysseus telling of his adventures, and claiming they have washed up on the shore in bottles. However, Antinous the most aggressive of the suitors, does not believe her and goes looking for Odysseus’ seal with which the letters are stamped. When he finds it, he demands that Penelope make a choice of her next husband. Just at the point that Penelope declares a contest for her hand, the 20 year older Odysseus washes up on shore just in time to get his revenge on the suitors.
While the show is surprisingly unsophisticated considering the opportunities Homer offers, among the clever touches are four of the five suitors making up an a cappella barbershop quartet, while several of the actors play surprisingly complacent pigs that Daphne is tending. The lyrics tend to be quite simple with rhymes mainly of one syllable but the high-powered cast gives the score their all. The beautiful Britney Nicole Simpson as Penelope has the best voice with her lyric soprano and the best material with such songs as “The Man That I Married,” “No One Will Ever Know,” “Something in His Touch” and the show-stopping “All Along.”
While the first act is devoted to Penelope, manly Ben Jacoby as wily Odysseus dominates the second act with his fine tenor in such numbers as “Home Again,” “We Need a Plan,” “The Mills of the Gods,” and his duet with Simpson, “I’m Not Sure I Remember Him.” The barbershop quartet made up of David LaMarr, Jacob Alexander Simon, George Slotin and Sean Thompson (amusingly differentiated) brings down the house with each of its numbers, particularly the oft-repeated “She’s Gonna Be Mine.”
As Antinous, Cooper Howell brings arrogance to another level, while veteran Broadway actress Leah Hocking makes Penelope’s lady-in-waiting and Odysseus’ old nurse a feisty virago, as much as her mistress is a regal presence. As the young lovers, the resourceful Maria Wirries and the wimpy Philippe Arroyo make a lovely pair. The sung melodies are pleasing but music director David Hancock Turner’s orchestrations with only the five member band seem rather thin, while many of the songs share names with more famous numbers. James Morgan’s unit setting with its view of the harbor allows for quick transitions between scenes while reminding us of its Greek island locale. The elegant costumes by Lex Liang create a great many colorful variations on the white tunic.
The musical gets a great deal of mileage out of its humor particular in its parody of recognizable tropes. Penelope, Or How The Odyssey Was Really Written is an entertaining musical comedy which turns into a feminist statement in the final scenes between husband and wife at the end of the show which gives this ancient Greek tale a modern sensibility. From the way the audience greeted the new musical comedy Penelope at the preview performance under review, The York Theatre Company may have a big hit on their hands.
Penelope, Or How the Odyssey Was Really Written (April 2 – 24, 2022)
The York Theatre Company
Theatre at St. Jeans, 150 E. 76th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-935-5820 or visit http://www.YorkTheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 18 minutes including one intermission