If musical pundits had been editing the yearbooks of composers Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown and Michael John LaChiusa, any or all of them might have been tagged “Most likely to inherit the mantle of Stephen Sondheim.” LaChiusa muscled his way to the forefront of that crop over the summer, with an article in Opera News in which he slammed the proliferation of “faux-musicals” on Broadway (kickstarting a feud with “Hairspray” composer Marc Shaiman), and advocated looking further afield to the nonprofits to find the artistically bankrupt form still flourishing. So the premiere at the Public of LaChiusa’s new chamber musical, “See What I Wanna See,” was bound to galvanize attention.
Is the attention justified? Yes and no. Mainly no.
With songbook assemblies, self-reflexive pastiches and disposable pop tuners dominating the field, the appearance of any show serious-minded enough to choose as its inspiration the stories of Japanese modernist writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa merits respect. But despite moments of arresting theatricality and sinuous melodic beauty, this dark reflection on questions of truth, deception, faith and perspective is overall a dull, distancing experience.
Not by chance is one of the stories harnessed by LaChiusa the same tale (“In the Grove”) that inspired Akira Kurosawa’s landmark film “Rashomon.” That fragmented account of ambush, rape and murder from four contradictory viewpoints forms most of the first act here, and its jigsaw-puzzle structure is echoed throughout the overreaching show; its two fully developed narratives and separate two-part vignette have clear connections but fail to coalesce into a satisfying thematic whole.
With blood-red silk banners draped across the stage, the intoxicating opening has Idina Menzel as a not-so-demure, adulterous wife in medieval Japan, with sex and death on her mind. “Tonight I kiss my lover for the last time,” she sings, revealing that her husband has discovered their secret. Just as she prepares, midcoitus, to sink a dagger into her paramour (Marc Kudisch), the scene goes dark, cutting to 1951 New York and shifting into a jazzier musical idiom.
Unfolding in a police interrogation room, the action here reassembles a rape and murder in Central Park the previous night, following the Gotham premiere of — what else? — “Rashomon.” Differing accounts of the events come from a moviehouse janitor (Henry Stram), tormented over his failure to intervene and prevent the death; a thief (Aaron Lohr), a mythomaniac who lured the victim into the park to help steal a hidden stash of mob money and then claims credit for the crimes in a bid for fame; the wife (Menzel), a hotsy moll in flaming red; and a medium (Mary Testa), channeling the dead man (Kudisch) after his psychic interruption disturbed her seance.
Following a brief, pointless replay of the doomed medieval tryst, this time from the perspective of the male lover, second act shifts to present-day New York, a year or two after tragedy (the 9/11 relevance is made clear without being explicitly referenced) has devastated the city and contributed to the crisis of faith of a priest (Stram). “How wrong, I thought/That God would have no pity/He’d let a gleaming city/Be crushed and leveled to the ground,” he sings.
Backgrounding reveals that the priest’s only relative, Aunt Monica (Testa), is a flinty Italian emigrant, a socialist and a dedicated atheist. Her opposition to his joining the priesthood ranks among LaChiusa’s more amusing lyrics: “The greatest practical joke/Played on the common folk/Is God,” she scoffs. “The worst political prank/Pulled by the file and rank/Is Christ-Mohammed-Buddha-Vishnu.”
Realizing Aunt Monica was right all along, and scorning the gullible dopes like himself that expect absolution, the priest drifts into Central Park, where he predicts a miracle — the emergence of Christ from the pond three weeks hence. The ensuing gathering of suckers yields a clunky ensemble number in “Glory Day,” involving the priest; a coked-up actress (Menzel); a disillusioned CPA-turned-raggedy homeless guy (Kudisch); a spotlight-seeking TV reporter (Lohr); and the now dying Aunt Monica, glued to the TV at home.
Each of the characters finds a different kind of enlightenment or redemption, with what’s a lie for one becoming the truth for another, and vice versa.
While all this is admirable in its complexity, it’s mostly unengaging to sit through. In his New York directing bow, Ted Sperling (a 2005 Tony winner for his orchestrations of “The Light in the Piazza”) stages the piece with a static hand that provides little distraction from its nagging air of self-importance. Thomas Lynch’s minimalist design has some striking touches, and Christopher Akerlind does his usual accomplished job on lighting, particularly in the film-noir look of the first act.
When individual performers are given space to emerge, the show becomes momentarily commanding — Menzel vamping her way through the title song, or the wife’s shocking police statement in act one; the unexpected emotion and interpretive power of Testa’s “There Will Be a Miracle”; Kudisch’s sweet tenor playing against his glowering physical presence in a handful of too-brief solo spots.
But there’s nothing fluid about the narrative, and the recherche music — like most of LaChiusa’s shows — merely snakes around in freewheeling, often dissonant circles, leaving little that lingers. The ambitious composer might yet help rescue the ailing American musical from the doldrums of inane content and peppy, puffy scores, But he hasn’t done it with this turgid yawn.