Orpheus and Eurydice: A Musical Odyssey for Young People
Music and Lyrics by Benjamin Cohen
Directed by Kate Mendeloff
Choreographed by Suzanne Willets

June 2-5, 1994
Young People's Theatre Production
Ann Arbor Civic Theatre
Ann Arbor, MI, U.S.A.

Reviewed by Dana D. Buck
Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
University of Michigan

In this modern and lively new retelling, acted by children ages ten and up, composer and lyricist Cohen has delightfully embellished the tale of Orpheus' descent into the underworld, bringing a 90s sensibility to the classic story of the brave bard who endures a journey to Hades to rescue, and ultimately lose forever, the great love of his life. While the plot remainsintact, Cohen has given the characters far greater dimension than that generally found in more standard versions, raising for them questions of identity and conflicts of relationship which humorously and poignantly add a contemporary resonance to the unfolding story.

As the opera opens, Orpheus is discovered surrounded by his companions the forest creatures, as he tells them how happy he is at the prospect of his marriage to Eurydice, which is about to take place. The wedding guests begin to assemble, and in the song "Can't Turn Back", Orpheus' male friends tease him about remaining faithful:

Vultures dance and all the silkworms sing
Bet your pants fidelity's the thing--can't turn back now. Don't flash your goods so much
Your bachelorhood, as such Is in the sack.
Can't turn back.

The wedding preparations begin, but even the guests detect a discordant note in the proceedings, as they sing the portentous "If All Goes Well":

Questions abound--
Hear them creeping?
Curious sounds
For wedding day.
Have the fates found
What they're weaving;
What they're leaving
For wedding day?

While the female chorus readies Eurydice for the ceremony, she begins to get cold feet. She questions Orpheus' notion of "romantic" love -- it seems he spends his time cavorting around in the woods, singing his songs to beasts and flowers, hills and trees- -to everyone and everything, in fact, but Eurydice! Orpheus is in love with the idea of love, but is he truly in love with her?

Eurydice: Sing me your delicate song, sprinkled with cheer Cozy and queer you make me feel, though I'm not a gathering throng, I am all ears Are you distressed tonight, tortured and pressed tonight Orpheus, are you in flight as you stand here?

Orpheus: No, I've got nothing to sing, conditions are poor My throat is sore, my lyre needs tuning I promise something to sing when things feel pure

Chorus: You've got a song for trees, wombats and wallabies Sing your
song for Eurydice. . .

The wedding takes place and, during the dance which follows, an increasingly confused Eurydice wanders alone into the forest, where she encounters a sinuous and sexy snake, who offers to free her from her doubts and fears:

Touch your dreams and trust your balance Stick with me and you'll go far. Shed your skin and dance with dalliance Are things what they are, or just what we want them to be? What he wants is driven by rainbows and ribbons But what you want. . .is me.

Eurydice, seduced and embraced by the slithery dance, is taken off to Hades, land of the dead. The Gods' messenger Hermes brings the unhappy news to the assembled wedding group, and Orpheus, realizing how much he does love Eurydice, resolves to bring her back to the world.

As his journey to Hades begins, Orpheus must first cross the river Styx. He encounters Charon, the Fagin-like boatman:

I ferry dead souls for a fee I pack em pell-mell down to Hades to dwell, Yet often I'm told I'm a cheap ne'er-do-well. What, me?

Charon grants Orpheus passage for the price of a song, and he descends into the 'underground moribund town' of Hades, where he must pass Cerberus, the comically creepy three-headed canine gatekeeper of Hades:

I'm a three-headed
I'm a much hated
Ne'er sated
I'm a much dreaded
Real fetid
Bow wow wow

Inside the gates Orpheus sees the torture of the dead souls, including Tantalus, doomed to eternally struggle for food and water placed just out of reach, and Sisyphus, who continually pushes a rock uphill nearly to the summit where, as if with a mind of its own, the rock returns to the bottom. He is granted audience with King Hades, who, in "It's Never Enough", reveals that the reasons for the mass torture lie in his own feelings of inadequacy:

How would you feel if your brother was Zeus? The mind behind humankind; rule of the roost You'd feel pretty small; forever reduced No matter how hard I try I'll never be him that's why. . .
Why am I dark?
Why am I drear?
I've got a wife who takes a Spring break half of the year
A failure in love!
Is that why I'm here?

Orpheus sings a petition for Eurydice's return to life, and with the beauty of his music the torture momentarily stops--even King Hades is moved. He agrees to allow Eurydice's departure, with the condition that Orpheus must not look at her until both have returned to the world above. Eurydice, unaware of Hades' terms, tells his wife Persephone of her fears of return to life with so many unanswered questions about her relationship with Orpheus. Persephone, in the song "Balance in Season", relates the story of her own marriage, in which she must spend half the year away to find peace.

As the couple begins their journey home, Eurydice asks Orpheus to turn and look at her; to convince her truly that he really sees her for herself. He does so--there is a fleeting moment of recognition and connection, but Eurydice, who has violated Hades' agreement, must remain below forever. Orpheus, back in the world, finds comfort in the fact that the two will someday be reunited in Hades, wiser about the true nature of their love.

Orpheus and Eurydice was performed on a bare stage; the cast consisted of thirty-odd young actors (including three as Cerberus, and one as Sisyphus' stone!) ranging in age from four to about fifteen. Composer Cohen, also a performer in the pit band, led the energetic young cast through a remarkable variety of musical styles- - jazzy sixties tunes; Sondheim-like Broadway numbers; traditional ballads; even classical arias-- all accessible and catchy. The choreography and costuming were simple yet evocative, using masks, flowing cloth, and the movement of the chorus to create a notion of the stylized symmetry of "traditional" Greek theatre for theatregoers largely unaccustomed to such performances, while maintaining a pace and fluidity appropriate for younger and more contemporary audiences. The opera was given six performances to full and appreciative houses.

The work is a happy blend of the classical and the contemporary. It utilizes elements drawn from myriad styles and genres to create an event which is engaging, humorous, and above all, thought- provoking. While entertaining for the youngest audiences, there is enough meat in the lyrics to allow those more adult spectators to come away affected and even inspired. And, possibly, humming the tunes as well.

Cohen's Orpheus and Eurydice is a welcome new gem in the diadem of the repertoire of work for children and, "If All Goes Well", will receive the enthusiastic reception and recognition which is its due.

Dana D. Buck
The University of Michigan

Dana Buck is an actor, a director, and a museum technician.