by Julie Congress · August 18, 2014
Billed as “a new (90’s rock Greek tragicomedy) musical” the high-energy Olympus Records lives up to every word of its tagline with dynamic energy and catchy tunes. We find ourselves in a music-crazed 1990s rock world. Topping the charts is the band Sophocles – with rock legends Ajax, Antigone, Electra and Philoctetes backing up lead singer Odysseus.
Olympus Records, with a book by Alex Prather,plays liberally with its mythological roots; the five members of the band Sophocles are referred to as being siblings, the sons and daughters of the rock legend Eddie Wonder - aka Oedipus. According to Greek mythology, only Antigone was a child of Oedipus. Four of the band members (Ajax, Electra, Philoctetes and Antigone) are, however, the metaphorical children of Sophocles, immortalized in his tragic plays. This leaves stalwart Odysseus, of Homeric origins, as the outlier. The Greek characters seem to provide more of a jumping off point for extreme action (Death! Suicide! Incest!) rather than adhering to or shedding light on their mythological basis, although we do get a clear character trait or two from each one (Ajax is a hero with anger issues; Odysseus is family-oriented and will stick with the band until the very end).
Records rather than Olympus seems to be the operative titular word and the true driving force behind this energetic musical. As an homage to a wide variety of 90’s rock, the show excels with its exceedingly catchy music and lyrics by Morgan Clarke. Over the course of the show’s 20 (!) songs, Clarke expertly offers us a wide range of styles - grunge to boy band, punk to alternative. While the lyrics are sometimes difficult to make out, the songs are each catchy and smartly crafted – they provide us with the nostalgic references we crave and embrace the tropes of each rock sub-genre without becoming derivative or parody.
The music is further bolstered by the phenomenal, distinctive voices of the 10-person ensemble. Jacob Thompson, with dark intensity as Ajax, attacks each of his Nirvana-esque songs with rock-star energy, riveting us with his stage presence and gravelly voice. In utter contrast but with no less talent is Scott Raymond Johnson’s gleefully inviting Philoctetes. A doofus with a sex-addiction, Johnson’s Philoctetes charms us in Backstreet Boys’ style, executing choreographer Stephanie Simpson’s nineties moves with a wink in his eye (for the sake of transparency, I have worked with Johnson on a couple of shows in the past – but that in no way diminishes from the fact that he is a tremendously compelling performer). Emily Afton brings a surprising dramatic depth and sincerity to Electra, Lauren Nicole Davidson brings angsty intensity to Antigone, Samantha Blain is chirpily persistent and bursting with energy as Random Fan and Jonathan Grunert, manages to be both delightfully cartoonish and dramatically steadfast as our throughline character, Odysseus.
Director Nikki Rothenberg keeps the 2.5 hour show moving at a quick clip, with minimal transitions and high-energy performances. Olympus Records’ tragicomic tone becomes unfamiliar terrain to an audience member – Act I is clearly comedic, but in Act II characters, true to their Sophoclean destinies, start dropping like flies. I was rather conflicted as to how to feel about seeing characters I’d become rather attached to depart the plot so inconsequentially.
Olympus Records offers up an ambitious, 90’s nostalgia-filled musical of epic size and scope, particularly impressive given the FringeNYC setting. Days after seeing the show, I still find myself googling Ajax and setting my Pandora to a 90s playlist.