Euripedes' The Bacchae is a tragedy, but that fact comes as a complete surprise while watching The Rockae, Prospect Theater Company's musical adaptation, because it's such a sexy good time up until the inevitable bloody end. Peter Mills (book, music, and lyrics) and Cara Reichel (co-adapter and director) have conceived the classic as a rock musical, with Dionysus (Michael Cunio) as a blond hair-metal rock god and Pentheus (Mitchell Jarvis) in stonewashed jeans, metal studs, leather boots, and eyeliner. It's a conceit that works quite well -- the Maenads have the teased hair and cleavage of a 1980s heavy-metal video -- and seems to take its inspiration from The Rocky Horror Show and Hedwig and the Angry Inch without becoming derivative.
The most praise should be heaped on Mills' lyrics and music. Many Broadway musical adaptations could learn a thing or two from him; he's taken difficult material and made it accessible -- with a great beat. When Lydia (Simone Zamore), Phrygia (Rashidra Scott), and Aeolia (Jaygee Macapugay) sing the heartfelt ballad "Abandon," it's an incredible moment, a showstopper that sounds like it could be a Top 40 hit. Matt DeAngelis belts "High on Cithaeron" to explain to Pentheus what the women are up to on the mountain and nearly steals the show.
Of course, it's Cunio's boyish yet muscular physique that attracts most of the attention. He's scantily clad throughout, and his supple body movement exemplifies the sexual ambiguity of Dionysus with ease. The biggest detraction from the production is that pesky tragedy part. When Agave (Meghan McGeary) tears her son Pentheus to pieces, it's shocking and difficult to reconcile the violent action with the rest of the previous fun-loving foreplay. But after those final awkward and confused moments, Mills provides a big happy finale that leaves you in thrall to the rock 'n' roll god of wine and ecstasy.
Presented by Prospect Theater Company as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival
at the Hudson Guild Theatre, 441 W. 26th St., NYC.
Sept. 15-Oct. 14. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
(212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or www.theatermania.com.