Off-Broadway Review: “The Fourth Messenger” at the New York Musical Festival at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row

Off-Broadway Review: “The Fourth Messenger” at the New York Musical Festival at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row (Closed Sunday July 23, 2017)
Book and Lyrics by Tanya Shaffer
Music and Additional Lyrics by Vienna Teng
Directed by Matt August
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

In Tanya Shaffer’s and Vienna Teng’s “The Fourth Messenger,” currently playing at the New York Musical Festival at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, the journey of protagonist Sid Arthur (Nancy Anderson) counterpoints the journey of Siddhārtha Gautama the Buddha of the current age. “Mama Sid” – as the world-renowned spiritual leader is addressed by her devotees – is holding forth at a winter retreat at her meditation center in Newfoundland speaking words of wisdom to her “wanderer ascetics.” She seems to be at the height of her “career” and nothing seems able to stop her from achieving even more notoriety except Raina (Samia Mounts) an intern at the failing “Debunk Nation” newspaper.

Raina is returning to the paper after the death of her father pitching a story to her editor (and lover?) Sam (Alan Gillespie) who hopes this might be the “next big story” that halts the paper’s precipitous downward spiral. What does Raina have on this national spiritual treasure? She believes Sid is hiding something and only she can discover what that secret is, what makes Sid as human as the rest.

Although the relationship between Sid and Raina becomes obvious before the “truth is told,” the unfolding of the relationship is engaging and quite interesting and Ms. Anderson and Ms. Mounts scrape away at each other’s layers of deception and denial with consummate skill and unencumbered grace. There is a great deal of Buddha business in “The Fourth Messenger” including the deconstruction of that very concept. However, the core of this musical is the tension between protagonist and antagonist – between Sid Arthur and Raina and the unfolding of Sid’s secrets and Raina’s relentless quest for love.

Tanya Shaffer accomplishes this unfolding through a series of well-constructed flashbacks and well-placed foreshadowings that culminates in the disclosure of Sid’s life-changing secret and Raina’s critical need to make her life-changing decision. Her book and lyrics and Vienna Teng’s music offer a compelling story of “redemption and release.” The rich enduring themes of reclaiming and embracing one’s story, searching for and discovering the truth despite the costs, and the importance of accepting life’s challenges and “moving on” suffuse the show’s musical numbers. Sid’s and Raina’s duets are powerful and exhibit the vocal strength and interpretive skills of the two actors. “Knock Knock” and “This Story Is Mine” stand out. Perhaps the weakest number – “The Real Thing” – needs a second look by the creators.

Under Matt August’s skillful direction, the members of the cast deliver compelling performances. Natalie Malotke’s choreography is serviceable. Caitlin Ward’s scenic design is effective although the staging might depend less on back-lighted scrims and an abundance of fabric that sometimes threatens to (literally) trip up cast members. Nick Solyom’s lighting design and Josh Liebert’s sound design are also effective elements of the overall composition.

As Sid realizes the need to come to terms with her past, she vows to “leave behind all that [she] knew” and move beyond shame and guilt. Does Raina file her story about Sid? Does Sid continue her mission? “The Fourth Messenger” answers these questions and more and is worth the visit.