Icarus Escapes the Box
A Theatre Review by Basil Considine
On the night of Thursday, July 18th, a packed audience at the Boston Common was treated to Icarus, a new musical by Jason Slavick. This engaging new work, developed and staged by the local experimental theatre company Liars & Believers, played in Boston for just one night before heading off to the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Although not without some rough edges, the enthusiastic performances in this intimate venue quickly snared and held the audience’s rapt attention. The long line turned away when the Spiegeltent, or “Tent of Mirrors”, reached fire capacity missed an engaging and unexpectedly deep show.
The narrative of Icarus follows a small traveling circus in America against the backdrop of the Great Depression. The titular Icarus (Austin Auh) is the son of the circus handyman, Daedalus (Steven Emanuelson), and dissatisfied with the nomadic circus life he has grown up in. Icarus falls in love with Penny (Corianna Moffatt), who is the circus’s star performer and the beloved daughter of Minnie (Aimee Rose Ranger), the circus owner/ringmaster. Naturally, Minnie (the name is a reference to Minos, the Cretan king who owned the maze and the minotaur) disapproves of the match. By the time the connections to Greek mythology become clear, the musical is already in its second half.
The score of Icarus, by Nathan Leigh, has a general Americana sound that hints at Appalachian folk songs and early country music. A trio of instrumentalists provided backing music, respectively on flute and accordion, acoustic guitar, and violin/fiddle. For a few of his songs, the actor playing Icarus also joined in on guitar as he sang, a measure that worked especially well in the intimate space of the Spiegeltent; at certain points, the cast also provided percussion backing by drumming on various set pieces and found objects. The score has no standout showstoppers, but the songs intensify and push the narrative forward in an agreeable fashion; several of the choruses are also quite catchy, and snatches of the refrain “There must be so much more than this” were sung and hummed at the end by the exiting audience.
The central thread of Icarus is the love story of Icarus and Penny. This begins as a distant and unrequited love, blossoms even as the audience starts to learn the dark underside of the circus, and culminates with the lovers’ attempt at flight. This is the source of the musical’s most intimate and magical moments, including the initial unveiling of Penny’s burlesque act and several milestones in her courtship by Icarus. As the lovers, Austin Auh and Corianna Moffatt had a pleasing chemistry; their first love duet could have been extended to better feature this.
Some others aspects of the performance could have been more refined. As Icarus, Austin Auh took a while to warm up vocally; muddy audio mixing and some microphone problems near the start of the show did him no favors. A few songs in, however, his voice was much fuller and more resonant, without the hint of reediness heard in his first solo number. Corianna Moffatt, as Penny, had no such difficulties, delivering a strong performance from the beginning.
Aimee Rose Ranger, as Minnie, would have benefited from a good, old-fashioned villain song. As the ringmaster/MC of the show-within-a-show, her songs mostly push the narrative along without giving her character an opportunity to shine. Instead, her best character moments come in monologues, not in music; her full villain monologue, including a threat to castrate Icarus for trying to steal her daughter, had members of the audience shivering. The character of Daedalus was likewise underutilized, though his robotic automatons (brought to life by the puppetry designs of Faye Dupras) steal many scenes.
One of the surprise moments of Icarus is an extended monologue on the financial collapse that kicked off the Great Depression; it connects the last pieces of Greek mythology to the show narrative, serves as an allegory to the financial collapse of 2006, and anchors the pathos of the lovers’ quest with a sense of gravitas. Like the presence of the Spiegeltent itself on the Boston Common, it is as unexpected as it is enticing; one wonders how this will be received when Icarus continues next week in New York City, ground zero of the present economic climate. Either way, Icarus provided a most engaging evening.