When considering source material for a musical, the epic battle between heaven and hell seems an unlikely—if not fatal—choice. And yet, creators Benjamin Birney (music and lyrics), Rob Seitelman (lyrics), and Seth Magoon (additional lyrics) have taken the bait, adapting John Milton's much-canonized poem Paradise Lost into a sexy and evocative full-length musical. Their efforts, while not always successful, are unquestionably valiant. Skillfully directed by Seitelman and ferociously performed by an attractive, amped-up cast, this Paradise Lost provides passionate, muscular entertainment. And the stakes, of course, are nothing short of grandiose. Lucifer, God's most trusted angel, reacts with jealousy and rage when God creates Adam and Eve. After a divisive battle (staged with force and grace by choreographer Jason Summers), Lucifer and his followers find themselves banished to hell, where they begin to plot against humankind. As Lucifer's power increases, he takes the name Satan, solidifying the diametric opposition of good and evil.
The problem, however, is that most of us already know how the story turns out, eliminating much of the suspense and conflict. Eve, of course, inevitably takes a bite from the forbidden fruit. But Birney and Seitelman have wisely inserted a new character into the story—Sophia, Lucifer's lover. Representing various incarnations of the feminine divine, Sophia is "Wisdom" in the Bible and appears in both Eastern and Western religions. Here, she is also sent to hell with Lucifer, but her sympathy for Adam and Eve brings much-needed conflict and complexity to both her character and the entire show. We may know what happens to Adam and Eve, but what happens to Sophia is anyone's guess.
Birney has penned a lovely, difficult score for the sung-through show, full of sophisticated (often a cappella) choral writing, powerful anthems, and spunky vaudevillian numbers. Too often, however, the songs are too lengthy and begin to blend together. As it dutifully reflects incendiary themes of battle and revenge, the music is finally unable to successfully maintain the continuous fervor the material demands. The dynamics explode almost instantaneously as the action begins, leaving little room to build in intensity as the show progresses.
The action also becomes a bit blurry in spots; with so much plotting and bellowing going on, it is often difficult to track exactly which battle is being waged. And the emphasis on sexuality, while it creates intriguing conflict (a love triangle of sorts between Sophia, Lucifer, and Eve, for one), sometimes feels forced. The personifications of Sin and Death, for example, appear to be castaways from the latest revival of Cabaret, clad in sadomasochist splendor that is more embarrassing than effective. And in "The Temptation of Eve" (and a few other songs), the melody is obscured by the addition of percussive accompaniment that sounds suspiciously like tacky porn music.
The multitalented cast rises to the challenge of the material, offering well-sung, convincing performances. Paul A. Schaefer dominates the stage as Lucifer/Satan; he's a charming, seductive villain who sings and moves with finesse. Danielle Erin Rhodes is forceful and compassionate as Sophia, and although Adam and Eve function as little more than pawns for the angels, Darryl Calmese and Ashleigh Davidson (in particular) bring remarkable depth to their performances. Sarah Madej and Tynan Davis turn in beautifully sung, radiant performances as the angels Raphael and Terathel. (Music director Jeremy Randall also deserves accolades for his meticulous work on some difficult choral passages.)
The angels spar on a bare stage, and they are simply adorned (white tank tops for angels; black for fallen angels), with wings suggestively painted on the backs of their arms by the creative costume and makeup designer, Sarah Levine.
A dedicated (and sometimes thrilling) attempt to create a dramatic miracle from problematic material, this Paradise Lost doesn't quite work as a musical. But the talented cast and crew have created a production that is well worth watching, and Birney and Seitelman are a promising young team of musical theater writers. One hopes that, as they begin their next project, they will assume a task of less epic proportions.