code name: Cynthia

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Stephen Sondheim would do well to watch his back. Pallas Theatre Collective has just mounted a new musical, code name: Cynthia, that is just as smart and pointed in its book and lyrics and just as telling and theatrical in its musical score as anything the modern master of sophisticated musicals has delivered lately—maybe more so. It’s based on a humdinger of a true spy story. It has a lulu of a female main character (played dazzlingly by Gracie Jones). Plus it harbors a take on Washington, war, and espionage so barbed and bracing it turns tropes of musical theater into mini-epiphanies.

Steve Multer (who wrote the book and lyrics) and Karen Multer (who wrote the music) stumbled upon the dramatic  true tale of an American Mata Hari on a visit to DC’s Spy Museum. The woman’s real name was Amy Elizabeth (“Betty”) Thorpe. During World War II, she worked for the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services), a precursor to the CIA, under the code name Cynthia. Born to high society and a beautiful debutante , Betty/Cynthia played a key role in obtaining vital secrets by seducing men. She literally used men in sex in service to the war effort for what she could get them to reveal. Most notably she parlayed her wiles into a  heist of critical French naval codes from a safe inside a guarded room in the Vichy French embassy on Wyoming Avenue.  In this their first musical, Multer and Multer (who are husband and wife) have cunningly turned Betty/Cynthia’s risky romantic and clandestine adventures into a briskly paced suspense story riddled with wit and suffused with sagacity.

code name: Cynthia has been in development with Pallas Theatre for several years and now arrives in a stunningly precise production directed by Founding Associate Artistic Director Tracey Elaine Chassum. The musical is sweeping in scope, taking place in multiple locations mostly in and around DC. (These are aptly evoked in wonderful multimedia projections designed by Chassum and Managing Director Caroline Brent.) I could easily imagine this musical commanding a larger stage where major new musicals are typically debuted, but it worked just fine in the compact black box at Anacostia Arts Center. (Music Director Amy Conley on piano and Rob Gersten and Keven Uleck on percussion are tucked offstage behind a projection screen, but the zingy music they make, with orchestrations by Scott AuCoin, is a perfect fit in the terrifically intimate space.)

There’s a bounty of beautiful voices in the cast. Gracie Jones as Betty/Cynthia is transfixing as she discloses the facets of this complex character with amazing range. William Stephenson, the sly agent who lures Betty back into the spy game (after she has vowed to quit in order to settle down and be a wife), is played masterfully by Jason Hentrich.

“Do I have a choice?” Betty asks Stephenson.

“Of course;” he answers, “live a lie, or on your own terms.” In a fascinating flip, living a lie is presented here as the preferable option. “We have to make choices; live the life / we want or the one others want for us,” Stephenson explains—just one instance of how this original musical reinvents the narrative of a smart woman inventing herself in compromising circumstances.

Betty is betrothed to Arthur Pack, an ambitious career diplomat played to perfunction by a suave and prickly Josh Simon. Cora Wells, a widowed high society matron and Betty’s mother, is played with acerbic smarm by Karen Lange, and Stephenson soon has romantic designs on her. Meanwhile Cora wants very much for Arthur and Betty to wed. But it turns out Arthur is a duped tool of Stephenson’s designs on Betty/Cynthia, and Stephenson sends Pack packing on a mission to Russia to get him out of town

With Betty’s fiancé out of the way, Stephenson hatches a plot whereby Betty/Cynthia is to seduce a press attaché in the Vichy French Embassy named Charles Brouse, played with earnest charm by Chris Oechsel. Once their  tryst in the Wardman Park Hotel starts to simmer, Cynthia needs no further persuading, and a spy’s sort of workplace romance ensues. In short order Charles and Cynthia are joined in a conspiracy to pull off the aforementioned illegal break-in at the Vichy French Embassy in cahoots with an ex-con safe-cracking expert dubbed The Georgia Cracker, played amusingly off-kilter by Russell Silber.

These six historically based characters are complemented by an Ensemble—Beth Amann, Zach Brewster-Geisz, Axle Burtness, Will Hawkins, Christie Jackson, and Kathleen Mason—who play various supporting parts and whose choral work is gorgeous. Lighting Designer Jason Afudem-Brinke rises to the challenge of isolating disparate locations simultaneously on a teensy stage. And Costume Designer Brian J. Shaw lends the show a lovely sense of period  prosperity in an insular world of Washington society comfortably removed from the headlines of warfare that flash onscreen.

A particularly satisfying strength of this musical is the sharp-eyed point of view it takes on the interrelationship between the geopolitical drama raging beyond the stage—the theaters of war—and the romantic/familial/co-conspiritor dramas being played out scene by scene before our eyes. For instance, early on during a cocktail party in Cora’s living room there’s this brittle exchange about whether the United States should enter the war.

ARTHUR [to STEPHENSON]
Bill, what’s your angle on the war; get in or stay out?
CORA
(interrupting) Forgive my children; they’re eager to see more Americans die in a fight that’s none of our business.
BETTY
My mother and Congress, the country’s leading isolationists.

CORA
Respectable people avoid war.
BETTY
Wars aren’t won by respectable methods.

There’s a heck of a lot of narrative that goes by in this show, in scenes stretching over two years between 1940 and 1942, and the urgent imminent sense of history happening is palpable throughout. On-screen slides tell us the exact date and place of each of each of the scenes. (It might help to see not only the dates on screen but the elapsed time, e.g. “November 14, 1941—17 months later.”) Yet the human drama is always front and center, especially the Multers’ extraordinary lyrical and musical revelations about the  inner life of a true unsung U.S. war hero, Amy Elizabeth Thorpe. In her big solo reprise “I Want This Life,” Betty sings:

DONE WITH STAYING SILENT
HIDING MY NAME
NO REGRETS
FOR HOW I’M PLAYING THE GAME
WE ALL HAVE SPECIAL WEAPONS
A KISS / A BED / A KNIFE
WE USE THE GIFTS WE’RE GIVEN
I CHOOSE THIS LIFE
TAKE A BREATH
AND TAKE A STAND
I WANT THIS LIFE
TAKE CONTROL
AND TAKE COMMAND
I WANT THIS LIFE

It takes both good words and good music to make a good musical. But to make a musical great it takes real heart and brains. code name: Cynthia cracks the code on all counts.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

code name: CYNTHIA plays through August 16, 2014 at Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, SE, in Washington, DC. Tickets are available at the door and online.  code name: CYNTHIA will also be presented at the Kennedy Center Page to Stage festival (schedule to be announced shortly).

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