A Scythe of Time, an impressive new musical and part of the 2016 New York Musical Festival, combines expert storytelling with a musically complex score and an absolutely superb cast. Based on two short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, How to Write a Blackwood Article and A Predicament, it succeeds in achieving the proper balance between pathos, humor and gruesomeness, while holding up a mirror to society’s craving for lurid details and an artist’s desire for fame regardless of the cost. Alan Harris writes a taut book, propelling the Gothic tale continually forward, while composer/lyricist Mark Alan Swanson’s music is at times operatic, evoking a lush romanticism, at times driving and anthemic.
Set in 1881 in London, A Scythe of Time centers around the publication of The Blackwood Articles, where desperate to be published writers, for a payment of 50 guineas, choose a spectacular way to die and write about it as it happens, satisfying the public’s insatiable hunger to read about their gory encounters with death. Blackwell, the editor (played with a manipulative panache and narcissistic swagger by P.J. Griffith) keeps pushing the envelope; death by hanging or drowning is overdone. What sells is the unusual, the far out, such as death by eating opium or being buried alive. He instructs his writers to make their stories all about their sensations.
The thirst to acquire fame, albeit posthumously, is even sought by Signora Zenobia (Lesli Margherita), a woman of high breeding and an editor of her own magazine, whose circulation is flailing due to the popularity of these Blackwood Articles. The story spins on her zealous quest for truth, and there are some great grisly plot twists in the 90-minute musical, expertly directed by David Alpert, who understands the power of an audience’s imagination. Mr. Alpert, along with his design team, work some marvelous theatrical magic with a mostly bare stage. Using a few versatile set pieces including a moveable screen, evocative projections by Dan Scully, and outstanding sound design by David Margolin Lawson, Mr. Alpert transports the audience back to the late 19th century for this grotesquely absurd tale of revenge and love.
All the performers are first rate singers and actors. With quick brush strokes, the ensemble of dead writers (Blair Alexis Brown, Brandon Brune, Emily Claire Hughes, Alex Syiek and Lance Olds), create complete characters who yearn for recognition, especially Mr. Olds as a consumptive, feverish-eyed poet who begs Mr. Blackwood for a chance to write and die in the musical number “Serious Man”. One of the ensemble’s highlights is an acapella interlude with rich harmonies reminiscent of a turn of last century choral art song. Ms. Margherita, possessing a gorgeous throaty mezzo and a vibrant stage presence, plays Zenobia with comedic flair. Broadway veteran Danny Rutigliano as Pompey, Zenobia’s faithful servant and an unexpected hero, is perfect, funny and vulnerable in all the right moments, especially his innocent scheming in the duet “Perfect” with Mr. Griffith. And Matt Dengler, a glorious tenor with the precious face of a school boy, is touching as Blackwood’s questioning assistant, Malachi.
More than a century after their publication, Edgar Alan Poe’s two short stories resonate as many people continue to actively seek their 15 minutes of fame and our taste for the horrific and shocking grows. A Scythe of Time captures the essence of Poe’s stories and is sublime entertainment, too!