Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Penelope, or How the Odyssey Was Really Written

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - 4/7/22

Britany Nicole Simpson, Ben Jacoby, and Leah Hocking
Photo by Carol Rosegg
So, in 1954 there was this musical, The Golden Apple, setting Homer's "Odyssey" in turn-of-the-century Washington state and dispatching his wisdom entirely in rhyming couplets. To many musical buffs it's the greatest flop of all time, a dazzling display of imagination that was just too smart for its own good. The year 1976 brought us Home Sweet Homer, in which Yul Brynner endlessly toured the country as Odysseus before finally opening on Broadway–for one night. This may suggest writers might want to think twice before adapting "The Odyssey" to the musical stage, but it hasn't stopped Peter Kellogg, whose Penelope, or How the Odyssey Was Really Written throws a couple of clever curves into a familiar tale and manages to be that increasingly rare beast, an ingratiating new musical comedy. For a good stretch, anyway.

Kellogg is back at the York Theatre Company, where his previous effort, Desperate Measures, was an unexpectedly wonderful hit that moved on to a solid Off-Broadway run elsewhere. Collaborating with a different composer, Stephen Weiner, he transports us to 1174 B.C. Ithaca, represented by James Morgan's modest set. There, Penelope (Britany Nicole Simpson) is running the empire while her husband Odysseus has been off fighting the Trojan wars. She's good at it, and assisted by her faithful nurse Eurycleia (a smashing Leah Hocking) and timid son Telemachus (Philippe Arroyo). But suitors have been circling, urging her to accept that Odysseus is probably dead and one of them should marry her and be king. Chief among them is Antinous (Cooper Howell, in a misjudged performance; practically all he does is sneer, like Billy De Wolfe). The other four (David LaMarr, Jacob Simon, George Slotin, and Sean Thompson) form a swell barbershop quartet, triggering the action with a mellifluous, doo-wop "She's Gonna Be Mine." As individuals, they're largely interchangeable, though, and director Emily Maltby encourages LaMarr to play Mileter cheap-laughs effeminate, which makes no sense at all.

Anyhow, here's Kellogg's first curve: To stall these suitors, Penelope has been penning what she claims to be letters from Odysseus, inventing battles with cyclops and other calamities to keep her wooers at bay. These will form the basis of "The Odyssey" and reveal the little missus to be the real mythology maker. It's a cute premise, and I wish Simpson had a firmer grasp on Penelope. As a vocalist, she has great long final notes for her ballads and not much else; many of her lyrics were inaudible at the performance I attended. As a comedienne, she's on uncertain footing, lending Penelope a certain coolness and haughtiness that make us unsure whether or not to like her. There's no such problem with Maria Wirries's delightful Daphne. She's the pig mistress who's pursuing a nervous romance with Telemachus, and she's blessed with some of Kellogg's most mischievous lyrics: "Pigs love mud and oh they smell/ So you can't help but smell as well/ If you want a boy, that's a biggie/ Who wants to get jiggy with Little Miss Piggy?"

Jason Alexander Simon, David LaMarr, Sean Thompson,
and George Slotin

Photo by Carol Rosegg
Kellogg plays by all the rules of traditional musical comedy storytelling: expository opening number, two-couple format, Act 1 finale with a plot-forwarding surprise, fun anachronisms, happy ending. He's aiming for a Boys from Syracuse/A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum vibe, and if Penelope isn't in that class, he ably keeps the jokes coming.

Until mid-Act II. Odysseus, in the splendid form of the strong-voiced Ben Jacoby, has washed up on the Ithaca shore and confessed to Penelope a long affair with the goddess Calypso. And here Kellogg decides to turn Penelope into a feminist tract. Odysseus insists he had no choice, the gods were decreeing his fate. But Penelope and Kellogg rake him over the coals for it. She and Eurycleia both engage in #MeToo-esque speeches about the undervaluing of women; these elicited audience applause but struck me as false as hell, and tacked on. It's such a blatant pitch at being of-the-moment, laying modern gender standards onto ancient history, and nothing in the previous musical merriment has primed us for it.

To director-choreographer Maltby's credit, she amplifies the humor with bracing physicality: Thompson, playing the smitten-with-himself Barius, hilariously does push-ups while contemplating his courtship of Penelope, and Hocking has an Act II pantomime, trying to make Odysseus, who's posing as the blind poet Homer, flinch, that just about justifies the whole evening. Somewhat to Maltby's discredit, she doesn't entirely clarify the relationships or motivations: How does Telemachus feel about all these guys pursuing his mom? What suddenly turns Eurycleia into Gloria Steinem? No clue.

Weiner's music, a melding of showtune, soft rock, and a cappella, is pleasantly unremarkable, while David Hancock Turner's five-piece ensemble sometimes overpowers the vocals. Too bad, when many of Kellogg's lyrics are very worth hearing. Penelope, or How the Odyssey Was Really Written is a less finished work than Desperate Measures, and Kellogg's insistence on capping all this literate, apolitical nonsense with a gender-woke detour is annoying. But these are dire days, and some of us need musical comedy to help see us through them. We'll take what we can get.

Penelope, or How the Odyssey Was Really Written
Through April 24, 2022
York Theatre / St. Jean Baptiste Church, 150 E. 76th St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: