You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Highway Ulysses

Commissioned from Rinde Eckert by the American Repertory Theater, "Highway Ulysses" is a music-theater work with operatic aspirations that more often than not achieves them. It's at its best when being sung, even though its deliberately archaic-sounding music is as much heightened speech and chant as actual song.

Bride - Nora Cole Ulysses - Thomas Derrah Son - Dana Marks

Commissioned from Rinde Eckert (“And God Created Great Whales”) by the American Repertory Theater, “Highway Ulysses” is a music-theater work with operatic aspirations that more often than not achieves them. A contemporary comment on Homer’s “The Odyssey,” it’s at its best when being sung, particularly by vocally soaring Nora Cole, even though its deliberately archaic-sounding music is as much heightened speech and chant as actual song.

Fact is, Eckert’s piece would be all the stronger if it had more music and less spoken word. And although Eckert’s orchestrations make use of such comparative oddities as theremin, homemade instruments and singing saw, his score is readily accessible, suggesting tangos and waltzes at times amid its steady rhythmic beats and minimalist gestures. The work’s romanticized bleakness, which may be off-putting to some, brings to mind Menotti’s “The Consul,” even though Eckert’s music isn’t remotely like Menotti’s.

“Highway Ulysses” seems intent on pulling the rug out from under heroic myths as a decidedly ordinary and unheroic Ulysses undergoes a cross-country odyssey from L.A. to claim his young son after his wife dies. Along the way, he meets a variety of oddballs before totaling his car and being carried into a wedding reception at the request of the concerned bride (Cole). It’s at this point that the piece begins, the cross-country odyssey then being told in flashback.

The admirable ART production actually begins before it begins, cast members wandering around the barely lit stage, sometimes gyrating to a soft rhythmic beat, as the audience enters. The setting is a wedding reception.

Curtains cut off the rear and one side of the stage. They are eventually drawn to reveal the full width and height of the large stage, transparent walls vaguely reflecting the action and used by Ulysses’ son (convincingly performed by actress Dana Marks) for Brechtian graffiti that the audience can read even though it’s reversed to them. Much of the time, the son is at his computer typing away. A screen is used for the titles of the work’s different scenes, for some of the dialogue and lyrics and for references to Homer.

During his odyssey, Eckert’s Ulysses is involved with a couple of men angrily debating the morality of theft, a panhandling veteran he beats up, a waitress with visions of being an Ophelia (though smarter) floating in a stream, a gun-toting librarian crazed by the fact that his library is to be closed and a female tattooer (Circe, presumably). Most of these characters make dramatic sense, with the exception of the tattooer; the scene between her and Ulysses topples over into the risible.

The cast, including Eckert himself, is strong down the line, notably Thomas Derrah, Karen MacDonald and Will LeBow, for whom the piece was commissioned. If Cole dominates, it’s at least in part because she is the work’s narrator, even getting to play the ghost of Ulysses’ wife, urging him not to contact their son because he would only disillusion the boy.

The work ends, unsatisfactorily, with the son typing his belief that his father is a hero on his computer screen.

All of the production’s elements are first-rate, including Robert Woodruff’s strong direction, Doug Elkins’ choreographed group movement, David Zinn’s cheerless set and David Weiner’s harsh lighting.

Music director Peter Foley and the Boston-based Empty House Cooperative are a tower of strength in the pit.

There’s still work for Eckert to do on “Highway Ulysses,” but it already holds the stage with sufficient power for it to warrant more time spent on it.

Popular on Variety

Highway Ulysses

Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Mass.; 560 seats; $68 top

Production: An American Repertory Theater presentation of a music-theater work in one act written and composed by Rinde Eckert. Directed by Robert Woodruff.

Creative: Set and costumes, David Zinn; lighting, David Weiner; sound, David Remedios; movement, Doug Elkins; music director, Peter Foley; stage manager, M. Pat Hodge. American Repertory Theater artistic director, Woodruff. Opened March 5, 2003. Reviewed March 8. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast: Bride - Nora Cole Ulysses - Thomas Derrah Son - Dana MarksWith: Heather Benton, Rinde Eckert, Will LeBow, Karen MacDonald, Michael Potts, Dianne Chalifore, Alison Clear, Lisa P. Miller Gillespie, Seth Reich, Josh Wright, Holly Vanesse.

More Legit

  • Ephraim Sykes participates in the 73rd

    Michael Jackson Musical Finds Its King of Pop

    Tony Award nominee Ephraim Sykes will moonwalk on Broadway, playing Michael Jackson in “MJ The Musical.” The show, which its the Great White Way after a rocky gestation. It begins previews on July 6, 2020, at the Neil Simon Theatre with an official opening set for Aug. 13. Sykes is currently appearing in another pop [...]

  • A Christmas Carol review

    Broadway Review: 'A Christmas Carol'

    Those expecting a traditional take on Charles Dickens’ classic holiday perennial may be in for a shock at the new Broadway version of “A Christmas Carol.” Or at least they might be terribly perplexed by this dour production, whose additions only subtract from the potency of the transformative tale. While there have been many adaptations [...]

  • Timothee Chalamet poses for photographers at

    Timothée Chalamet to Make London Stage Debut With Eileen Atkins in '4000 Miles'

    Timothee Chalemet is set to take to the London stage for the first time, appearing next spring in Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play “4000 Miles.” Matthew Warchus will direct the production at The Old Vic, which will also star Eileen Atkins (“The Crown,” “Gosford Park”). The play opens April 2020. It turns on the story [...]

  • Jonathan Groff

    Listen: Jonathan Groff Knows He's a Spitter

    If you’ve seen “Little Shop of Horrors” — the starry revival headlined by Jonathan Groff in a small Off Broadway theater — you probably noticed that Groff spits a lot when he speaks onstage. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s been a spitter as long as he can remember, but “Little Shop” [...]

  • Key Largo

    L.A. Theater Review: Andy Garcia in 'Key Largo'

    Would “Casablanca” make a good play? Guess what: It was first produced on stage as “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” How about “Key Largo,” the black-and-white Bogie-and-Bacall vehicle in which a handful of misfits find themselves trapped in a South Florida hotel while a hurricane rages outside? In fact, the 1948 John Huston film was adapted [...]

  • Sophia Anne Caruso and Alex Brightman'Beetlejuice'

    How 'Beetlejuice: The Musical' Became a Broadway Turnaround Story

    Christopher Kuczewski is what you’d call a Netherling. It’s a reference to the netherworld inhabitants who populate “Beetlejuice: The Musical,” the off-beat adaptation of the 1988 hit film that’s becoming an unlikely Broadway turnaround story. And that designation, which has been given to superfans of the show, goes a long way towards explaining how a [...]

  • Lena Waithe'The Inheritance' Broadway play opening,

    Lena Waithe, Anderson Cooper Attend Broadway Opening of 'The Inheritance'

    “The Inheritance” pulls viewers in many directions — toward pain and hope, trauma and healing. It’s what brought stars like Andy Cohen, Anderson Cooper, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick and Lena Waithe to Broadway on Sunday — a chance to heal, to remember and grieve. Also in attendance for the premiere at the Barrymore Theater [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content