Was this trip really necessary? The elaborate contrivance for this lame musical is the Biblical journey of the Ark that Noah and his sons built to save man and beast from disappearing from the face of the Earth in the Great Flood. But the domestic issues that plague Noah’s family on this tedious trip are so banal that they might as well have been thrashed out around the kitchen table, back on dry land.
Speaking of arduous trips, it’s quite a trek over to 37 Arts Theater, the new complex of theaters and studios that recently opened in a no-man’s-land section of Hell’s Kitchen. But once inside the door, it’s a warm and welcoming place, consisting of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, three theaters and multiple floors of rehearsal and office space.
“The Ark” smartly showcases the virtues of Theater B, a compact 399-seat house that feels intimate but has nice depth and offers plenty of fly space for stashing the technical hardware. The sound system works swell, with realistic animal noises coming from all corners of the house — the conceit being that audience members are the beastly residents of this floating liferaft.
Beowulf Boritt’s rough-planked set looks great, packed tight with cozy spaces on multiple levels for members of Noah’s large family to find a little privacy. That means individual, curtained bedsits for the patriarch Noah (Adrian Zmed) and his mother-of-us-all wife Eliza (Annie Golden); his rebellious first-born son Ham (D. B. Bonds) and Ham’s luscious wife Egyptus (Janeece Aisha Freeman); the jack-of-all-trades middle son Japheth (Rob Sutton) and his fashion-conscious wife Sariah (Jacquelyn Piro); and the young newlyweds, clueless Shem (Justin Brill) and shy Martha (Marie-France Arcilla).
Despite having to feed, care for and clean up after all the copulating and defecating animals crammed into this ark, everyone manages to look fresh and color-coordinated in Lisa L. Zinni’s stylishly homespun costumes. (Who knew hopsacking came in powder blue?)
Besides looking spiffy, no one is less than vocally respectable in the simplistic roles that define this model family, and some are standouts. Freeman has the best pipes; Golden puts the most heart into her belter blues number; and Bonds tackles the defiant Ham with such conviction that he almost humanizes his clichéd character.
The problem is, these hard-working thesps are condemned to sing their hearts out over matters that are either inane (closet space), irrelevant (the tribulations of young marrieds) or hackneyed (bossy fathers and restless sons). Whenever the creatives do manage to hit on some issue that lands outside the box — like the conflict between men of faith and men of action — the derivative music and simplistic lyrics suck the juice out of it.
The score by Michael McLean and Kevin Kelly (which had exposure at ASCAP’s Musical Theater Workshop and further development at the Festival of New Musicals underwritten by the National Alliance for Musical Theater) suffers from a severe case of Disney envy — here defined as the notion that dull people with conventional domestic problems and limited vocabularies achieve heroic stature when clothed in archetypal trappings.
No word longer than two syllables — and no thought more challenging than a fortune-cookie sentiment — makes the lyric cut. Musing about the difficulties of raising children, Noah and Eliza have to make do with mind-numbing lyrics like “It takes two to lead and guide them/It takes two to stand beside them/It takes who?/Me and you.”
Consistent with the dumbed-down lyric idiom (which gets a lot of mileage out of wallpaper filler like “Hey, hey, hey, ha, hey, yea”), the music sticks to the soporific rhythms of soft pop and watered-down gospel. Reaching for the patty-cake standards of Stephen Schwartz, infused with brash Elton John vulgarity, the misbegotten show aspires to be “Godspell” without the innocence, “Aida” without the electricity.
It is, indeed, “a miracle,” as one oft-repeated, head-banging lyric would have it, when this Ark makes it to dry land. But the real miracle is that the long-suffering animals don’t break out of their cages in revolt.