Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins will take its place among the classics of American musical theater. Not so, I fear, Saturn Returns: A Concert. Guettel and his director, Tina Landau, tried this one out in different forms. At present, it is a concert for six singers and nine musicians, with minimal action staged by Landau, and vestigial set and costumes by James Schuette, and it doesn’t as yet work.
Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers and son of Mary, cannot avoid competition with his forebears. Having reached 28, the number of years it takes Saturn to circle the sun, he felt the need for human renovation and artistic innovation. He became fascinated by Greek myths, and also hooked on an old Presbyterian hymnal. So he set some of both in an eclectic score the Times described as “Gabriel Fauré meets Stevie Wonder, Caetano Veloso embraces Earth, Wind and Fire.” Guettel confesses, “I hunger for something, but I don’t know what it is.” His angst and metaphysical quest may seem like a unifying principle to him, but the audience must feel like uncongenial orgiasts bouncing together on an alien water bed.
There is, for my taste, not enough Fauré and too much of those others. As a lyricist, Guettel still oscillates between occasional felicities and frequent triviality. But out of nineteen numbers, two have lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, five come from the Presbyterian hymnal, one is really wordless, and only eleven are by Guettel, adding to the uncohesiveness and making Saturn Returns a saturnalia with diminishing returns.
Yet the music is never less than respectable, and is sometimes outstanding. Ironically, the most successful number is a jazzy waltz, “How Can I Lose You,” affectingly rendered by Annie Golden as a woman who can’t understand her inability to hold on to a man. Here tune and lyric are happily entwined, demonstrating full command of basic musical-comedy idiom, though Guettel may be after bigger game.
Among the performers, I especially enjoyed the wittily versatile Theresa McCarthy and the staunchly resonant Bob Stillman. Jose Llana has an engaging personality, but his voice can take on a metallic ping. Vivian Cherry and Lawrence Clayton are fine gospel singers, a genre that, alas, leaves me cold. The eight musicians under Ted Sperling, who fitfully joins in, perform Don Sebesky and Jamie Lawrence’s fetching orchestrations fittingly.