This show began as a spiritually-themed song cycle that flip-flopped between the titles Saturn Returns and Myths and Hymns, written by the greatest theater composer of the current generation, Adam Guettel. The version that played off-off-Broadway in 2012 under the latter title added an attempt at a dramatic narrative, but since the new book features minimal dialogue and the emphasis is still almost entirely on the music, the result is something like a more dramatic version of Cats…a sumptuous collection of songs bound together by a vague overall throughline. Some, perhaps justifiably, questioned the necessity of adding a fictional structure to what was essentially the author’s musings about the nature of God in concert form, but the only thing anyone seems to strongly dislike about the new version is the choreography, which features some inappropriately cutesy set pieces which clash with the tone of the music.
In any case, what is and has always been the core appeal of the show is Guettel’s magnificent score, the first wholly successful work he did for the theater. Roughly half of the score is inspired by Greek mythology, with an emphasis on a common theme in those stories: mortals getting capriciously screwed over by the Gods. The comedy numbers are “Pegasus”, a contentious trio between the famous winged horse, his rider, and the gadfly that turned them against each other, and the wonderfully absurd “Sysiphus”. More serious pieces include the ultra-romantic “Hero and Leander” and the funk-influenced “Icarus”.
The other half of the score consists of new settings of lyrics Guettel found in an antique hymnal, of which the most memorable are the stirring “At the Sounding”, the delightfully quirky “There’s a Land”, and a heartbreaking musical scene built around the chorus of “Come to Jesus”. Added to this are a few purely original modern-day hymns, like the soaring “Migratory V” and the cosmically anguished “Awaiting You”, and the tormented sometime title-song “Saturn Returns”, which vividly expresses the central ambivalence of Guettel’s vision.
Whatever additions this or any other production may make to the material, it is the music that will always truly carry the show, and whatever the production’s problems, as long as the score is intact, this show will always be worthwhile.