Hannah Corneau (center) in ‘Renascence.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Spoiler Alert: This review contains content that may impact surprise elements of the production.
There was a moment I witnessed in Renascence, the new musical with a lush score by Carmel Dean, book by Dick Scanlan, and lyrics culled from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, that reminded me why I go to the theater. But much like Ms. Millay’s poetry, the payoff has to be earned.
“It’s not easy to dramatize a writer writing. Basically, writers sit at their desks and pull their hair out and write,” commented Mr. Scanlan in a recent interview with The Broadway Blog. “So we have to come up with all kinds of ways to give the audience glimpses into her creative process.” Such is the construct of this new work, which attempts with varying degrees of success to unpack Ms. Millay’s creative process by musicalizing her poetry and exploring the various forces that impacted her rise to fame.
The real Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in 1892, one of three daughters reared to be independent and ambitious. Their humble conditions and absent father only further fueled their mother Cora to cultivate her children’s sense of self-worth, and in the case of Vincent, a natural knack for writing in verse. She gained notoriety after entering a poetry contest (encouraged by her mother, of course), and although she didn’t win the prize, it caught the attention of the publication’s editor, which, in turn, set her writing career in motion. Vincent was also known to be a passionate and compelling orator, traveling the country and performing readings of her works to packed houses. Her love affairs included both men and women, though some might argue that her longest-lasting relationship was with her own work.
Ms. Dean’s score features sweeping melodic passages, further strengthened by Michael Starobin’s rich orchestrations delivered by an eight-piece ensemble. Renascence relies on Ms. Millay’s poems as lyrics, which create a sort of musical tapestry that acts as commentary to accompany Mr. Scanlan’s lean book. They work hand in hand, allowing Ms. Millay’s poetry to breath and inviting the audience to hold space with her words set to music.
The six-member cast, except for Hannah Corneau as Vincent, plays multiple roles, transcending age and gender to embody the poet’s world as she transforms from an ambitious teenager to nationally recognized author and personality. Ms. Corneau, with black hair and Elizabeth Taylor eyes, taps into the creative angst of a young artist (“I am the poem. Twentieth century, Mother.”), though her seductions in later life land less believable. The remaining actors vacillate between parts, including standout Katie Thompson as Vincent’s mother.
For the most part, though, the company’s over-earnestness feels unnecessarily wrought. Ms. Millay’s work as reimagined by Ms. Dean (as well as Mr. Scanlan’s book) stands on its own merit and a sense of simplicity might further serve the piece. Additionally, its modern-day dress (adequately executed by costume designer Asta Bennie Hostetter) diminishes the impact that Ms. Millay had on a generation of artists and fans.
Every aspect of Vincent’s life becomes the raw material for her work, including her destitute father, who reappears at the pinnacle of the poet’s success to plead for reconciliation and a handout. “No matter where I’m going, what I’m doing, who I’m seeing, all I’m thinking is, ‘Could this be a poem?’” she says to him, before singing a haunting musicalization of “Time Does Not Bring Relief.”
It is at this point that the rear curtain rises on Brett J. Banakis’s set at the Abrons Arts Center to reveal a patch of grass, blue sky and clouds, and an entirely new seating area, to which the audience is guided for the musical’s final montage. Stepping through the fourth wall and inside Vincent’s world creates buzzy energy as the company (except for Vincent, paralyzed by the encounter with her father) guides attendees onto the stage.
Hand on shoulder.
Man with cane.
Couple on a date.
Critic with notebook and pen in tow.
Vincent’s canvas comes alive in a brilliant moment of community as we find ourselves in the world of the musical’s title song. The actual poem “Renascence” concludes the performance, set to over-busy choreography by Scott Rink, unnecessarily complicated by fluttery movement that distracts from the source material.
Even so, much of Ms. Millay’s words and Ms. Dean’s music transcend minor distractions, proving that an artist’s life in all of its struggle, strife and success, makes for a great story.
Transport Group at Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street
Through November 17
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.