Ryan Reid is Cupid and Pheonix Vaughan is Psyche in "Cupid and Psyche." Photo by SHAWN HUBER/Staff Photographer
"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," says Pheonix Vaughan (as the lovestruck princess Psyche) to Michael Maricondi (as Mercury, messenger to the gods of ancient Greece), when informed that the way out of her dire predicament is to break out in song.
"I know," says the impish sidekick. "Aren't musicals great?"
Sometimes, a musical is precisely what the doctor ordered — and "Cupid and Psyche," the comic tunefest now on stage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, could not have happened along at a better time, following two rather somber dramas and a set of real-world circumstances that have hardly made for the cheeriest of seasons out there.
Positioned as a "holiday" offering by NJ Rep, the show by Sean Hartley (book and lyrics) and Jihwan Kim (music) represents a definite detour from the standard seasonal fare that tends to commandeer local stages this time each year — a fact for which you can thank the gods of your preference.
Apart from its dispensing good will and cheer in its own merry way, the production under the direction of Alan Souza (who helmed the Dorothy Parker musical "The Little Hours" in Long Branch a few months back) is swift and bright as a famous reindeer — a quality that should keep it fresh right on through mid-January, long after the various Scrooges and Nutcrackers have been boxed away for another year.
If you frittered away your school years studying Greek mythology instead of Keynsian macroeconomics, you might recall the rather convoluted tale of Cupid and Psyche as the one in which the winged, arrow-shooting love god falls for a beautiful mortal — a royal daughter of Illyria, but a mortal from the wrong side of the clouds nonetheless.
There's a perilous trip to Hades in there, along with invisibility spells, obvious disguises and a forbidden "box of beauty," but the scuttlebutt of the story is that Cupid's mom, the scheming love goddess Venus, will do just about anything to break up the budding interspecies romance.
Liz Zazzi, a member in good standing of the unofficial NJ Rep stock company, plays the aging Venus with the right balance of highbrow hauteur and lowbrow laugh-mining; addressing the audience and throwing in the odd in-joke reference to local landmarks and businesses.
While her comedic gifts shouldn't come as a shock to anyone who saw her in last summer's popular "Women Who Steal," the fact that she can sell a showstopper song (her solo spots "Don't Mess with a Goddess" and "Improvise" are among the best moments of this fast-moving piece of work) is a welcome bonus feature.
Another pleasant surprise is the work done by Zazzi's co-stars, a trio of young players who are each being seen on the local stage for the first time. Ryan Reid portrays Cupid as an earnest young guy who's grown into a rebel with an Adonis physique (he spends the opening moments of the show striking godlike poses), even while holding onto the innocence of the familiar cherub from the Valentine's Day greeting cards. Looking a little like The Who's Roger Daltrey in his (long ago) "Tommy" prime, the actor plays well with others, sharing scenes and duets with his fellow cast members with a dexterity that brings out the best in all concerned.
Pheonix Vaughan — and yes, that's how she spells it — offers a Psyche who's smart and courageous and certainly celestial enough to attract the eye of a being who dwells in the palaces of Mount Olympus. That the two physically perfect specimens in the title roles can also act and sing is a boon for director Souza, who's evidently worked closely with his dream cast and Hartley (the author penned a couple of new songs specifically for this production) to retool this previously produced show into a pleasing fit for the oddball specs of the Rep mainstage.
Short and stocky alongside his Olympian peers, Maricondi is the tireless energy source of this show, playing a somehow believable Mercury in addition to the gods Pan, Neptune, Athena and Proserpine — as well as the hellhound Cerberus, a gargoyle and sundry other comical cameos. The character man sets the pace for much of the onstage action and has some fine vocal contributions to offer, particularly in "One Little Arrow," a duet with Reid.
Onstage musical director Naomi Lee accompanies with solo piano arrangements of the breezy, pop-inspired score, keeping to the back of the pastel-colored "ruins" of the Jessica Parks set. NJ Rep's veteran costume designer Pat Doherty has risen to the occasion with a collection of vivid outfits that make a good fit with the various characters.