“Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings” employs not just original anime sequences, but the very structure and attitudes of classic Japanimation to spin out its post-apocalyptic allegory about angel children’s struggle to build a new world. The result may resemble a musicalization of “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” but it’s neither pretentious nor kitschy. Musically lush, committed and smart, tuner will appeal to a demographic far beyond comic book fans (who’ll adore it), for in composer/librettist/co-lyricist Eric Whitacre it introduces an exciting new, and potentially important, figure in the musical theater.
A Grammy nominee for his a cappella choral compositions, Whitacre here adds overhead accompaniment of cello, synthesizer and percussion that literally lifts one out of one’s seat. A raft of beautiful melodies is complemented by disparate musical influences, from the urban nitery’s throbbing techno beat to the massive drums of martial arts cinema, all unified by the spirit of youth that both performs the piece and serves as its theme.
An anime prologue explains how the angels of light, preparing to engage with the forces of darkness, planted their children, wingless, behind an impenetrable rock wall until the titanic battle could be played out.
17 years later the promise of return remains unfulfilled, though Logos (Dan Callaway) and henchman Ignis (Kevin Odekirk) summon nightly combat challenges, superbly staged by Caleb Terray, to tool the tribe into a lean, mean fighting force primed to defend the sanctuary. (Evidently the kids were dumped near an Army-Navy store and tattoo parlor, permitting Soojin Lee to outfit them in boots, cut-up fatigues and body art to strike fear in any army of darkness.)
Yet restiveness has begun to crack the sense of homeland security. Logos’s visionary sister Exstasis (Hila Plitmann) experiences pieces of memory – also dramatized through pitch-perfect “Astro-Boy” anime, wide-eyed urchins and all – that inspire a dissident quest for the missing wings, to test whether staying the course is the best response to whatever waits behind the rock barrier.
Whether one sees the wall as an international border or a metaphor for our response to terrorism, plot can be read on many levels in the manner of “Akira” and “Vampire Hunter D.” What matters is not “the” meaning but whether story has been told with forthrightness and intelligence, and this one most certainly has, no campiness allowed. Company’s belief in the stakes inspires our own.
Lyrics co-authored by David Norona demonstrate graceful true rhymes and a minimum of generic, freedom-is-everything blather. Logos is permitted to argue his position (be focused and ever-watchful) forcefully enough to get a decent dialectic going for a while. And the muscular score features not a single romantic power ballad; any romance would be a trivial intrusion on a yarn taking itself this seriously.
Callaway and Odekirk sturdily convey the weight and temptations of power, while a Timon-and-Pumbaa pair offers a welcome dollop of humor. Daniel Tatar’s dissolute rogue Fervio delivers a touching ballad of self-exile, “All Alone” (though he’ll make a Han Solo comeback when the going gets toughest), and Rodolfo Nieto is sweetly affecting as the giant petty thief Gravitas.
While Plitmann commands Exstasis’ martial skills and spooky second sight (the opportunity to cast a lyric soprano with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do must have been irresistible), a slight lisp and insistence on vocal beauty over clarity render her lyrics almost completely unintelligible, leaving aud too long in the dark about the rebels’ motivations.
There’s other murky plotting, and show lacks a sense of the tribe’s everyday dynamic when not smacking each other around the campfire. And given a score that dips so readily into the sounds of multiple cultures, one is surprised that multiculturalism doesn’t seem to have been a casting goal. Predominantly staffing the forces of light with Caucasians creates unintended implications that may be tough for some to shake.
Design team achieves stunning effects irrespective of 99-seat budgetary or space restrictions. Steven Young’s lighting envelops the characters in a mythical glow but is never so stylized or self-conscious as to undercut their human dimensions. Helmer Michael Michetti takes full advantage of Tom Buderwitz’s imposing granite rear wall, incorporating platforms and a zigzagging pathway to the top.
At one point helmer evokes the Israelites under Pharaoh as Ignis drives the tribe by the lash – exactly the kind of quick visual association characteristic of the most artful anime.
All the talk about breaking through to confront unknown dangers serves to telegraph the final effect, though its impact sneaks up all the same. The swelling chorale singing thrillingly of “Bliss” creates a final frisson that many another ambitious musical would envy. Neither we nor the children know what awaits them or whether they’ll triumph. But the sheer act of breaking through visually, musically and emotionally becomes a blissful victory in and of itself.