An author’s note claims that Renascene “is no bio-drama, rather it is a theatrical exploration by six contemporary and singular theatre practitioners…of what it means to be an artist and a person—if one can be both—using selected, heightened details from [Edna St. Vincent Millay]’s life as the means of that exploration.” That note appears in the script, but not in the program and not in the writing or staging after the first few minutes of the world premiere musical currently running at Abrons Arts Center, part of Transport Group’s season. Instead, book writer Dick Scanlan and composer Carmel Dean set Millay’s poems to music and structure them as a mostly straightforward bio-musical about the year in which Millay wrote the title poem. Dean’s music is, at times, lush and powerful and the six-person cast is exquisitely voiced, but as a whole, the enterprise has a confused dramatic perspective.
In the first few minutes of the musical, the actors appear as blank players, not yet colored by character or story. They struggle to wright the first lines of a poem, wrestling with meter, with rhyme and rhythm. This prologue is illuminating in that it shows the work that goes into crafting a line of poetry, the various agonizing details that form one line – something Millay will struggle with for the play’s duration. (A recurring theme is moving from line 106 to 107, or how to carry one’s art forward, and the prologue illustrates that idea impeccably.) This troupe – are they actors or poets? – then disappear into Millay, her family, her friends, editors, and enemies before reappearing in a coup de théâtre to beckon the audience onto the stage for the production’s most powerful section.
It constitutes a spoiler to reveal what happens, but it is also the production’s most successful moment. The poem-makers step from their characters and call the audience onto the stage, a pastoral blue-skyed, green-grassed space at odds with the brown, wood-planked stage and proscenium seating in which we’ve been watching the show. In this new, immersive world, the six actors sing a thrilling choral oratorio rendition of Millay’s “Renascence.” In her musical setting, Dean captures the breadth and scope of Millay’s writing, something we’ve heard about at length over the preceding two hours. It is an expressionistic, bravura piece of writing. The score builds to this moment and the payoff is worthwhile, though nothing before quite lives up to this final section or justifies the lengthy run time to get to it.
Directors Jack Cummings III and Dick Scanlan have difficulty finding compelling stage images in the bio-musical sections of Renascene but are more at home when the audience and actors are in one space, experiencing Millay’s poem together. Brett J. Banakis’ set for the majority of the show consists of a platform that extends over the first few rows of seats. The audience then sits at the foot of this platform, although the protrusion from the theatre’s proscenium converts the playing space into a thrust stage. The audience does not sit on three sides of this platform, though; we’re tacked onto the end of it, further removed from the performers. This added obstacle prevents a direct connection from occurring between Millay’s biographical scenes and the audience. The prologue and the final section, as mentioned, do not suffer from this disconnect as the actors take the audience by the hand – literally, at the end – and draw us into the proceedings.
Hannah Corneau plays Vincent (as Millay was known) as a person driven by art and open to all experiences. Corneau’s bright tone is suited to the high belting of Dean’s score, but her tone is ultimately hollow and the power of her big notes grows wearisome once their impressiveness has been appreciated, but continues ad nauseam. Corneau never loses her laser-like focus, though, and carries the narrative through Vincent’s obscurity to her fame with subtle shifts that accumulate to show a significant change in the scrappy teen who began the play. As Millay’s mother, Katie Thompson is the play’s emotional center and her commanding, dark-hued timbre threads into Dean’s music flawlessly.
Transport Group is reliable for producing exciting, risk-taking theatre that maintains a strong sense of quality, even when those risks do not pay off as much as anticipated. This musical may have its peaks and valleys in its first production, but between Dean’s unique compositional voice and the intricate syntax of Millay’s “lyrics” lies the promise of something remarkable. That promise is apparent, and revealed, in the final moments of Renascence, and that makes it entirely worthwhile.