Music Theater Review: Eric Whitacre's 'Paradise Lost' at Walt Disney Concert Hall
In Broadway lingo, an angel is a show’s backer. On the Broadway stage, the most cherished angel, and one with actual wings, is the messenger from heaven in Tony Kushner’s great play “Angels in America.” But the most astonishing performance of a Broadway angel, if she ever gets to sing it on Broadway, will be Hila Plitmann Exstasis, the lead angel in Eric Whitacre’s “Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings.”
That’s a big if.
“Paradise Lost” is an elaborate hybrid musical/opera, or “electro-musical,” if you will. It’s a hybrid anime/post-apocalyptic high-concept spectacle about abandoned angels, wings clipped. Among the show’s extravagant requirements are opera and music theater singers, a decent cellist, a DJ, taiko drummers, a chorus 300 strong and an audience eagerly adept at suspending disbelief. Everything was in place Saturday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall for a well-attended, impressively performed semi-staging of the show, conducted by the composer.
Corny, a tad cultish yet weirdly accomplished — and certainly in the case of Plitmann and that huge chorus made up of high school and college kids, thrillingly sung — “Paradise Lost” is as hard to categorize as Whitacre himself. The 41-year-old composer from Reno, with his messianic long blond locks, has signed with a top London fashion model agency, Storm, and has taken the worlds-apart choral world by storm.
He is a bestselling classical composer and a composer-in-residence at Cambridge University. His choral pieces, those with gooey consonances and sentimental texts, can be cloying. But when he rises to the occasion of texts by decent poets, he sometimes finds fresh originality. He is a charismatic conductor. He writes memorable tunes. He cannot be easily written off.
The book is by Edward Esch. June-moon lyrics are by Whitacre and David Norona, the show’s co-creator, who served as director and narrator for the Disney production. Their story is meant to appeal to the child and the new-age gnostic in us, to say nothing of our inner kick boxer.
A tribe of angel tots is abandoned and de-winged by parents who go off to fight the powers of darkness and never return. Now young adults, the angel offspring have become a paranoid paramilitary bunch whose uptight leader has the Christ-like name Logos. His girlfriend, Exstasis, longs to fly again. He, though, has a serious bliss issue.
A drug called amber brings visions of angel ancestors who lead Exstasis and some rebellious angel friends on a quest to find where their parents had hidden their wings. These are not entirely innocent angels. They use four-letter words and know about sex. Exstasis has a punk look.
Whitacre’s job is to liven-up standard Broadway musical conventions, and with Plitmann, his wife, he does. A familiar soprano at Disney, she premiered Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Wing on Wing” in 2004 and was a riot in the premiere of Gerald Barry’s opera “The Importance of Being Earnest” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last spring.
As Exstasis, Plitmann not only knocks out Broadway-style tunes with aplomb but she embellishes them with exceptionally flights of coloratura fancy. She is also a committed actress and does a decent job in her fight scenes.
The musical and dramatic elements of “Paradise Lost” may not be new, but their combination is — "The Magic Flute” meets “La Bohème” meets “West Side Story” meets manga. And then there is that chorus. It thickens the musical plot with exaggerated grandeur. It also serves as a kind of musical black hole, with Whitacre’s harmonies supplying the strong gravitational force that pulls a listener in, if not always voluntarily.
What Whitacre and his collaborators don’t offer is the occasion for post-apocalyptic angels to set foot out of a comic book. Still, Logos (Damon Kirsche) and his crew — the militant Ignis (Doug Kreeger), the amusing Fervio (Daniel Tatar), Pieta (Sara Jean Ford), Aia (Marie Wallace) and the deep-voiced philosophical Gravitas (Rodolfo Nieto) — were more like us than dieties, and they could be engaging.
The job of Fang Fang Xu, the cello soloist, was to help out with the intimate expressions of budding Broadway emotion. The On Ensemble handled the taiko drums that dramatically punctuated fight scenes. DJ Greg Chun spun. Jason Crystal’s metallic sound design was not designed for intelligibility of speech or choral sweetness.
The performance lasted 85 minutes, with the two perfunctory acts performed without an intermission. Now it's time for Broadway angels to come in and bankroll the kind of workshop in which stage angels might acquire more flesh and blood, to say nothing of better lyrics. Forget the wings.
— Mark Swed
Photo: Hila Plitmann as Exstasis in Eric Whitacre's "Lost Paradise" at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night; Whitacre speaks before the concert. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times.