A new musical that proves itself to be utterly unique.
The time and place is 1881 and London. The events of the musical defy this corporeal setting, however, and feel as though they are happening somewhere else entirely; somewhere rather removed from any particular time and place. The musical opens on Mr. Blackwood (P.J. Griffith) and his sidekick Malachi (Matt Dengler) discussing the progress of Blackwood’s plot to put every publication in London, other than his “Blackwood Articles”, out of business. He muses over his ambition to be the only editor and publisher of all the news in the world. The final London publication standing in his way is something called the “Blue Batch”, which is edited and presided over by Signora Psyche Zenobia, whose entire eccentric personality is conveyed by the beautiful syllables of her name.
In the following scene, we are introduced to Zenobia (Lesli Margherita) and her equally idiosyncratic servant and confidant Pompey (Danny Rutigliano). They’re introduced through the song “Good Soul”, which is easily one of the highlights of the production. Margherita is a wonderful stage presence to behold and she expertly handles the tonal and melodic material of most of her music throughout the show, making her the strong point of the cast. Unfortunately, she stumbles a little over some of the material in the later songs “Shadows” and “At the Clock”. Since these are her only three songs in the show, she is also the weak point of the cast. Overall, her superb acting almost makes up for the vocal strain she displays on one or two notes and she shows she is an incredible talent in the making.
Griffith is far more consistent in his performance, but he also seems to shy away from his character’s truly bizarre nature, something Margherita never does with Zenobia. Griffith seems to be toying with the absurdities of Blackwood’s personality, giving the impression of holding back, whereas Margherita understands that the merits of the show will only shine if she wholeheartedly embraces Zenobia in all her oddities.
Speaking of oddities, the show is utterly rife with them. It begins with a writer hanging himself. As it continues, we learn that the “Blackwood Articles” are so popular and sensational because they include many stories of writers killing themselves in various ways and then writing about their experiences with death. The Harris and Swanson take this extremely heavy subject matter and begin the show by giving it its due weight, treating it carefully and seriously. However, as the show progresses, several questions arise. How is it possible that the authors are paid for their commissions if they’re dead by the time their work is published? Are the authors really dead? Who, in their right mind, would accept a writing assignment that can only be completed by committing literal suicide?
The show has an opportunity to genuinely address these questions and begin exploring further heavy subject matter. Instead, the writers eschew this option entirely, and one of the main characters is nothing but a singing, talking, severed head for the second half of the show. By the time this most supreme absurdity arrives, the audience has realized that A Scythe of Time doesn’t really care whether you’re taking it seriously or not. It seems that the show doesn’t even want to take itself too seriously.
The music is phenomenal, the orchestration is perfect, the performances are somewhat better than expected, the set is very creatively done for how sparse it is, and the show is an equally dazzling and confusing piece of musical theater. Audiences will walk away puzzling over what they’ve just seen and wondering what it all meant. It’d be naïve to say it meant nothing, but it’s extremely difficult to pin any specific meaning to such an unruly show. All one can be sure of is that A Scythe of Time is extremely entertaining, extremely unique, and reminds us all that not everything in life should be taken so seriously.
Photo credits: New York Times.