Presented by Prospect Theater Company at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., NYC, April 26-May 18.
With "The Alchemists," composer-lyricist-book writer Peter Mills and director-book writer Cara Reichel ("Illyria," "The Taxi Cabaret") continue to make solid, innovative musical theatre for Prospect Theater Company. This time, the duo has come up with something you seldom see nowadays: an original musical that's truly original, that hasn't borrowed its plot from a movie, novel, or other source.
And "The Alchemists" is not an easy, contemporary story, either. Set in Sussex, England in the early 19th century, it's a complex melodrama, following five childhood companions—four boys and the girl who becomes their muse—into early adulthood. The story is told in nonchronological fashion. Two sets of actors play the characters at various ages in what is essentially a romantic "pentangle"—a tangle, at any rate.
Mills' score has a sound that is plausible for the era—some numbers are hymnlike, others come off like elegantly winding parlor songs. But there's enough spark and style to make them catch in 21st-century ears. Two or three songs are flat-out gorgeous—especially "Golden," which is reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday" in theme and demeanor. Mills provides intelligent lyrics, edged with a controlled wit—just what those who've started to follow his career would anticipate he'd craft for a story like this. Hearing the clever yet heartfelt "Back from Rome," you may find yourself wishing for a cast album in order to study the song's structure. Two set pieces, "Impromptu" (a poem-writing contest) and "Elixir" (a laudanum-induced nightmare), prove how sharp the Reichel-Mills team is becoming at advancing a story and delineating character through song.
The production has disappointments. The dual-piano accompaniment seems thin. The cast is uniformly earnest, though some younger voices are barely audible at points.
Tony Vallés and Blake Hackler give standout performances, portraying two of the five principals, and Greg Horton excels in multiple roles.