As a child, I learned about opera from Bugs Bunny, myopia from Mr. Magoo, and Dinah Shore from Beany and Cecil. Those were cartoons of course, and so is Orphie and the Book of Heroes, albeit a live-action one. This “family-friendly” (i.e., children’s) musical, performed by the Red Masquers at Duquesne University, will make kids smile and introduce them to the gods and poets of ancient Greece. And there won’t be a quiz afterward.
It’s a tale of imagination and female empowerment that revolves around Orphie (a plucky Samantha Espiritu), who wants her friend Homer (Max Begler) to write a story about the ultimate hero. So she sets out on an adventure to find him, and guess who “he” turns out to be? Meanwhile, Homer falls prey to a gleefully sanguinary Hades, who lives in H-E-double-hockey-sticks with his anhedonic wife, Persephone.
Along the way we meet other ancient Greeks, from Cerberus (three actors, of course) to Heracles to Atlas, who’s two hollow cloth legs on giant feet made to dance by on-stage puppeteers (the show uses light, sound and visual effects quite well on an intimate stage). All we’re missing is Sappho of Lesbos, presumably too R-rated for the kids.
The songs — music by Michael Kooman, lyrics (and book) by Duquesne alum Christopher Dimond — take cues from Godspell, Superstar, Disney, Sondheim and even a happy half-inch of Hedwig: Two of the three Sirens are men with beards and furry chests in the show’s campiest number (thanks to a playfully flamboyant Vincent Marchi, who butches up as the narcissistic Heracles).
The cast performs with a sort of awkward energy, and while nobody really dances especially well, they all seem be OK with that: Like Orphie, they’re on an odyssey, testing their limits. Director Jill Jeffrey keeps things light, although I can imagine a version that takes its characters and emotions more seriously without losing (or frightening) the youngsters. The classic figures all introduce themselves with a Wikipedia-like sentence, and a few others get mentions. “There are worse things than not having parents,” Hades says to our orphaned heroine. “Ask Oedipus.” In 2017, that randy quip barely rates a PG.