Classical and choral composer Eric Whitacre’s new musical shamelessly combines two of pop culture’s more cloying fixations, anime and angels. Somehow, it overcomes the familiarity of its saccharine iconography in a show whose melodies are muscular while, at the same time, its lyrics, co-written with David Noroña, are surprisingly introspective. Receiving its world premiere at Theater @ Boston Court, Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings oozes dread, even in its somber, pre-show score — marshy, Eno-ish electronica accompanied by a virtual weather front of stage mist. Over the next two hours, Whitacre expands his palette to include throbbing beats that propel the action forward as a kind of trance opera.
In a long-ago war between the forces of light and darkness (a conflagration depicted in Lyn Gaza and Michael Manning’s show-opening anime cartoon), angel mothers and fathers sheltered their similarly bewinged children in a walled city for safekeeping. (Where the armies of the night boarded their kids, this cartoon does not say.) There, the children were to await the conclusion to the war in heaven, which, with a little luck and good tail winds, would send their parents flying back to reclaim them.
Seventeen years later, the kids are still waiting. All grown up and covered in tattoos, fishnets and ripped cammies, they slam-dance and jostle across a Burning Man milieu. (Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s thrust stage is topped by a large, raked platform whose granite texture is echoed elsewhere on his boulder-crowded set.) These children of paradise are lost but angry, insolent yet in search of authority, and the musical Whitacre builds around them seems like an uneasy mixture of Rent and Lord of the Flies. The characters are literally an unflappable tribe, since the parents removed their protean wings before leaving for war.
The society these grounded kids have cobbled from scratch does actually function, but you know it can’t last. Already there is grumbling about the futility of waiting, and the air is filled with a vague urge to revolt against the sanctuary’s claustrophobia. We find them puttering about their Thunderdome, with martial-arts tournaments as their only diversion. (Fight choreographer Caleb Terray must have worked overtime on this smack-down-heavy show.) They are governed by their eldest, Logos (Dan Callaway), an unsmiling taskmaster who issues orders through his often-dissed lieutenant, Ignis (Kevin Odekirk). Logos religiously believes that only strict military discipline can stave off the anarchic dark lurking outside the walls. His sister, Exstasis (Hila Plitmann), is a rebellious blonde seemingly named for a popular rave drug. Exstasis’ nighttime dreams lead her to recall suppressed memories and discover an underground cavern containing the children’s stored wings. Soon Exstasis’ curiosity drives her away from her strict brother, Logos, and toward the influence of her wayward gang of friends.
Exstasis’ pals are a mixed bag, attractive yet almost whimsically flawed. There’s the unscrupulous wheeler-dealer Fervio (Daniel Tatar) and his dim but muscular sidekick, Gravitas (Rodolfo Nieto, who comes close to stealing many a scene with his low-keyed likability). Pieta (Juli Robbins) and Aia (Marie M. Wallace) are the kind of unruly homies whom Logos’ henchman Ignis might bust for smoking in the girls’ room — if paradise had cigarettes. Instead of tobacco, the pair partake of “amber,” an elixir that looks suspiciously like Johnny Walker Red and is poured from oval flasks.
There is really only one conflict in the story and that is Exstasis’ willful attempt to retrieve, against her brother’s commands, the children’s forbidden wings. Some viewers will find Paradise Lost’s book (by Whitacre) to be a very formulaic yarn in which a virginal girl opens a box she shouldn’t open, crosses a river she shouldn’t cross and generally disobeys long-standing parental instructions. Despite this, he has created a watchable story peopled with memorable characters.
This Paradise Lost is a fable built not around Genesis or Milton, but upon Whitacre’s own reductive mythology, which he fortifies with the angels’ warrior codes, daily routines and even their own swear words — jokey alterations of Anglo-Saxon and Spanish profanities. More important, the musical is a Romantic story without a romance. The plot’s only tension and love — albeit a nonerotic love — exist between Logos and his sister, Exstasis. For all of its depiction of youthful passion, there is no sex in this musical.
Instead, it plays out as kind of an elaborate afterschool special and probably should be marketed more to high school audiences than adults. This isn’t a knock against the show — everything about Paradise Lost, from its hip music to lessons about peer pressure and individuality, cries out to be brought into schools. One particular scene, beautifully orchestrated by choreographer Bubba Carr, deftly showcases the story’s nonpreachy approach to personal morality. It comes during the “Stealing Song,” in which Gravitas effortlessly demonstrates how he can pickpocket nearly anything he wants from his unsuspecting fellow citizens.
Although Whitacre fills the kids’ personalities and conversations with naive impulses, there is nothing condescending about his treatment of youth, no vicarious reimagining of bygone years by the writer. Exstasis and her crowd may brim with you’re-not-the-boss-of-me tantrums, but ultimately they are fighting against apathy and struggling for an identity. When Fervio says, “This could be the only chance to get out of this slum,” he’s not talking about moving to the suburbs.
Director Michael Michetti’s production, which sometimes leans on traditional Eastern theater techniques, looks like a million dollars, and every penny of that look goes to bringing audiences into Whitacre’s world. Michetti captures the complex psychology of youth without infantilizing Whitacre’s characters. Instead, the wingless angels (whose ages would have to range somewhere between 20 and 26) seem like brats still in their early teens — which works fine in this context of emotional underdevelopment. Every one of Michetti’s enthusiastic, 19-member cast is in tune with the story (it doesn’t hurt that Plitmann owns a black belt in tae kwon do), and all the principal actors perform their songs with energy, ably accompanied by the On Ensemble taiko drummers, cellist Fang Fang Xu, and musical director Greg Chun’s keyboarding.
Although the 99-seat Boston Court seems like a relatively small venue, everyone is miked in this musical, which may not be necessary — certainly the ensemble’s members seem to have the pipes to carry to the back of the house. Fortunately, Martin Carrillo’s sound design is reliable and crisp, as is Steven Young’s light plot. Completing the story’s post-apocalyptic look are Soojin Lee’s grunge costumes and Becca Coffman’s hair and makeup.
Even if Paradise Lost doesn’t explain why 20-somethings are awaiting the return of parental rule, or makes you wish you’d never see a Mylar butterfly again, it still packages the need to rebel and question authority in a smart box that even the most complacent kid might want to open. Which may well make it one of the season’s more innovative offerings.
PARADISE LOST: Shadows and Wings | By ERIC WHITACRE (music, book and lyrics) and DAVID NOROÑA (lyrics) | At THEATER @ BOSTON COURT, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Through September 2 | (626) 683-6883