|Mario Cantone in Bliss (Mark Kitaoka)|
The 5th Avenue Theatre
Through February 23, 2020
The new musical at the 5th Avenue Theatre, Bliss, wants to turn fairy tales on their heads and to create a more modern and more feminist version. The writers, Emma Lively and Tyler Beattie, wrote about four princesses in one family who are all different and quirky, one from another.
Princess Carmella (Katy Geraghty) is a little rounder, a lot more gregarious than her sisters, and apparently a “good singer.” Princess Piper (Gizel Jimenez) is nerdy and scientific. Princess Faye (Kristolyn Lloyd) is the sword wielder and wants to slay dragons. Princess Holly (Claire Neumann) speaks to animals – even worms – and seems to be asexual or possibly non-binary, though no one ever speaks to her identity that way.
Their mother died ten years before and their father, The King (Manu Narayan), has locked them in a tower while he “home schools” them math, science, and many languages. What we are supposed to understand about his reasons is that he somehow was too afraid of the world to allow the princesses to be out in it. Of course, they’ll escape the room in the musical.
A typical fairy tale has magical elements, characters who are generally well-defined as either “good” or “evil,” and usually are set in enchanted kingdoms. The setting of this musical generally fits this description. And there is a clearly evil person in it: Sir Pincus Glimmermore (Mario Cantone). He’s the “fairy godfather” who seems like he will make dreams come true.
There are many problems with this new musical and they start at the beginning. Cantone is the “name” of the production – the potential “star” that draws people to see the show, a known comedian who plays up the jokes and the “fun” of the piece. That’s clearly what he’s there for. However, they have him introduce the whole musical with a song called “Happily” (a lyric that sounds a lot like the song “Happily Ever After” from Once Upon A Mattress).
Cantone is funny and narrator-like, so he is not positioned to then end up the villain of the piece. The introductory song makes him seem benign and even possibly helpful. There are a lot of musical fairy tale villains. Ursula in The Little Mermaid can be liked and can be thought funny, but it’s very clear she’s the villain from the moment you see her.
Here, Sir Glimmermore wants to have one more wish come true, his 4000th, so he can earn his wings. This is so he’ll apparently be “relevant” though to whom or for what is not clear. Also, he fixates on fulfilling only one of the princesses wishes and only in one specific way. When the princesses escape, he pronounces that all princesses want to marry princes, and then he picks Piper to marry Prince Devin (Conor Ryan), the surfer prince to whom all princesses present themselves to marry, to fulfill his 4000th wish.
Piper may be smart, but she’s apparently too unprepared to know that there are bad beings out in the world – so she has no defenses when Glimmermore introduces her to a bevy of princesses who are all perfectly dressed, perfectly quaffed and with perfect princess manners, and Piper can have what they have if she dips herself into the magic pool. Her sisters have to figure out her peril and come rescue her.
While the story does have a unique set of princesses, the writers seem to have blinders on when it comes to the male-dominated world that they position the family within. Ultimately, the different women do not succeed because of their own agency, but only with the cooperation of or the gracious acceptance of, their male and privileged characters. None of the men really have to change if they don’t want to.
There are so many unanswered questions. What do the sisters want? What does the father want? Why would Glimmermore only want to answer one wish? When a different sister actually does want to marry the prince – without even dipping, why wouldn’t that satisfy Glimmermore’s “quota” to make someone live “happily ever after”?
Piper wants to make the world a better place. How does Piper know that trolls can’t marry trolls, or that ogres are discriminated against (apparently). She hasn’t gone outside in ten years.
There are some jokes that land and some songs that are musically pleasant, but an awful lot of it is generic and sometimes way too “stolen” (Glimmermore, “I’m melting” !?!). This seems like a Stepford Wives/Barbie Meets 4 Odd Princesses production that frankly seems more suited to an ice show than a stage musical. Disney might really like it.
Certainly, the cast is talented and does their best. It is made to be family-friendly. I’m sure younger folks will be far less judgmental than I.
For more information, go to at www.5thavenue.org or call 206-625-1900.