By Donna Herman
The Fourth Messenger is part of the New York Musical Festival and has performances through Sunday July 23rd. A reimagining of the legend of Buddha as a modern day woman who is both enlightened and flawed, the piece itself is a mirror image of its protagonist. The creators Tanya Shaffer (Book & Lyrics), Vienna Teng (Music & Additional Lyrics), and Matt August (Director); are a little like Park Slope helicopter parents. Too close and loving to see their child’s flaws in order to correct them. And really, the kid’s not that bad – there’s a lot to love here – which makes it almost more frustrating. Because with a tweak or two, The Fourth Messenger could be outstanding.
To be sure, the team set themselves no small task in trying to reform the Buddha legend for a modern sensibility. Prophecy, messengers and a spiritual quest for enlightenment all play a role in the tale. And they wanted to be able to integrate the core Buddhist principle that attachment brings suffering with the modern idea that attachment is what gives meaning to our lives. These lofty ambitions were actually not what tripped them up. It was using the theater medium in service of their lofty goals that caused the stumbles.
Specifically, disconnects between plot and character development in the very beginning, compete with stunning music and lyrics and engaging performances by the two female leads, in the battle to win the audience’s suspension of disbelief. And admittedly occasionally later on in the story as well. What we know going in about The Fourth Messenger from the advertising is “Mama Sid is a modern-day ‘awakened one’ with a worldwide following. But a determined young woman seeks to unearth Mama Sid’s mysterious past, exposing long-held secrets that could change everything.”
The opening song, “Pebble In A Lake” is beautiful, with gorgeous harmonies sung first by the Mama Sid (Nancy Anderson) and then by Raina (Samia Mounts). The first verse, sung by Mama Sid is about the ripple effect of every action we take. The second verse, sung by Raina, angrily: “Every false move she’s made / Every trust that she’s betrayed / Left a wound that will never heal / Though she may think she’s safe / Got away without a trace / One day all will be revealed.” She goes on to sing about how revealing Mama Sid’s lies will make her name, be her breakout story. She seems very angry. It’s clear she knows something but we don’t know what it is.
Cut to Scene 2, the offices of Debunk Magazine. The Editor, Sam (Alan Gillespie) calls a staff meeting and tells everyone they need the next big story if they want to keep their jobs. No one on the whole staff has anything until Raina enters and says “Mama Sid.” Why? All she’ll say is that she has a hunch, which Sam dismisses. She convinces him it’s a story worth covering because Mama Sid is so reclusive and won’t share anything about her past. So Sam assigns it to a veteran reporter. When Raina objects and says it’s her story, we find out she’s an intern and has just gotten back from burying her father. Sam’s right. She kisses him and says yes, but I’ve been your intern for a whole year, and it’s my story and he caves.
That exchange did not ring true to me at all and took me out. Raina clearly knew something damaging about Mama Sid which she wanted to expose. So why didn’t she tell her editor what it was? If she had reservations about exposing it, how had she expected to convince her boss to send a rookie on a potentially enormous story? Because she’s a good lay? Was she an idiot or was he? The weakness of the plot and character development right at the outset had me fighting what I was watching instead of accepting it.
Which was actually a shame because I loved the music and lyrics. I thought the music was haunting and the harmonies were complex and memorable. The lyrics were clever and resonant and fit the moments beautifully. And I was extremely impressed with the performances by Nancy Anderson as Mama Sid and Samia Mounts as Raina. Nancy Anderson truly floated across the stage exuding an aura of calm and enlightenment, but when a big emotional moment was called for in the end she delivered. Samia Mounts has a big belting voice, great comic timing and a well-spring of emotional depth in one dynamic package. She’s someone to watch out for. I will admit that the 2nd Act delivered the emotional and intellectual payoff that playwright Shaffer was gunning for. I just wish the 1st Act was as smooth.
The Fourth Messenger Book & Lyrics by Tanya Shaffer, Music & Additional Lyrics by Vienna Teng, Directed by Matt August, Choreography by Natalie Malotke
WITH: Nancy Anderson (Sid); Alan Gillespie (Sam/Bread/Delilah); Matt Hetherington (Andy); Jacob Hoffman (Derekh/Yasha); Cali Elizabeth Moore (Harmony/Water); Samia Mounts (Raina); Terry Palasz (Clara/Hag); Josh Powell (Mike/Sunny); Faith Sandberg (Myra/May); Jessie Lozano (Conductor/Piano); Ben Lively (Violin); Brian Sanders (Cello); Mike Lunoe (Drums)
Scenic & Costume Design by Caitlin Ward; Lighting Design by Nick Solyom; Sound Design by Josh Liebert; Orchestrations by Ryan O’Connell; Casting Director, Cindi Rush; Production Stage Manager, Garrett Kerr; General Manager, Sharon Fallon Productions; Production Manager, Fritz Brekeller; Press Representative, Daniel DeMello. Presented by New York Musical Festival and 4M Productions at The Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street through 7/23/17. For tickets visit: https://ci.ovationtix.com/52/production/973910?performanceId=10173842