Victoria Huston-Elem and the cast of The Hidden Sky.
BOTTOM LINE: A smart, interesting new musical about a world where the pursuit of knowledge is forbidden, with a great score and some equally great performances.
I had a very hard time figuring out where to begin when talking about The Hidden Sky. So, I'm going to start by describing a little excerpt from the theatre's website. They created this cool video with a mysterious British woman narrating that I think gives you all the knowledge that you need to get a really great sense of what you will see when you go to see Prospect Theatre Company's newest musical. Picture this: "The world as we know it is no more. A great apocalypse, brought on by the blatant misuse of technology, has ravaged the earth. The sun, obscured by clouds of ash, and seldom seen, is worshiped as God. A society has emerged where science, math, and the pursuit of knowledge are strictly forbidden by the high priests. Invention and scientific knowledge are considered heresies. Arabic numerals have been forgotten. In this primitive society, the only machine permitted is the steam engine which is controlled by the secretive engine masters. Forbidden from computing, they must use cumbersome roman numeral mathematical tables to perform even the most simplistic computing. The story takes place in the walled city of Ayden that few have ever dared to leave." A little more background: the plays tells the story of Ganil, who has just been appointed the newest engine master and her journey to challenge the powers that be and awaken her sense of knowledge and spirituality in a harsh totalitarian world.
Yeah, that's right: it's a musical about math. Math in a post apocalyptic world. There's a love triangle, some political torture, secret societies of knowledge seekers, and some really lush coral music mixed with contemporary musical theatre. Bizarre. I know. And yet, somehow, it actually kind of works.
There is a lot of math in the show. There's even a pretty beautiful song about the discovery of base 12. But don't let that scare you. It's more about the world that has been created where traditions and rituals are paramount and no one dare question the status quo. This is aided very nicely by Sidney Shannon's smartly designed costumes which create a hip, yet traditional world where the Middle East meets the Far East with a slight Medieval Bohemian European style.
At times I felt a little bit like I was watching an episode of Star Trek and was waiting for Captain Picard to come and rescue the day and show this repressed society the light. Now, that isn't meant to be a negative comment, just an observation. The Hidden Sky is definitely the thinking man's musical. Brigadoon, it ain't. The music is extremely smart and meticulous in its composition. The orchestrations are some of the best I have heard from such a small band which includes only eight musicians. The three main characters at the heart of the story are at the top of their games. Victoria Huston-Elem carries the show as Ganil with a great sense of poise, restraint, and superior vocal chops-maneuvering the extremely complicated score with great ease and dexterity. Ben Gunderson delivers a solid performance as the social revolutionary and Ganil's knowledge enabler of sorts. Rounding out the trio of talent, Mark Mozingo, who was a true standout as the title character of Prospect's previous production of Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge, gives a very compelling portrait of Lani, the man betrothed to Ganil, who most chose between his love for her and his high standing rank in the authoritarian society.
All in all, I was very intrigued by The Hidden Sky. It definitely succeeds at creating a world that is unlike anything that I have seen in a typical musical. Were all of my questions about the world answered? Not really, but I think that is all right. You will be challenged, but will ultimately leave fulfilled. It's Sci-fi meets Sondheim with a little bit of Square One thrown in. I apologize for the obscure math television show reference, but if you are reading this review and know what I am talking about and loved that show, you must go see The Hidden Sky. If are looking for something smart, sophisticated, and very interesting, go see The Hidden Sky. It's about the purest quest for knowledge and the hope that something far greater than us is at play in the world, whether that be faith or science. No matter where you stand on the great faith vs. science debate, I think that you will find a lot to love about The Hidden Sky. If not, you'll at least learn a little about math, and in my opinion, there is never a bad time to do that.
(The Hidden Sky runs through February 28th at The West End Theatre, 263 West 86th Street
Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $25 For tickets and more info call 212.352.3101 or visit www.prospecttheatre.org )