Stephen Scott Lay is a young man who is slowly turning the entire Bible into a stage musical. He started with Uz, based on the Book of Job, at St. Petersburg's Palladium Theater in October 2002. Nine months later, in July 2003, he premiered Esther at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, and now he's presenting The Song of Songs, again at TBPAC. Scheduled for September is A Whale of a Tale, based on the Book of Jonah, and after that, a rock opera called Samson.
Lay writes the book, music and lyrics for each show, and also directs. Further, he acts and sings: In Uz he played Job, in Esther he was the Storyteller, and in Song of Songs, he's King Solomon. Lay approaches Scripture from a Christian perspective — the "SLM" of "SLM Theater Productions" stands for Stephen Lay Ministries — and he says in a program note that he hopes spectators will find in his work a truth "that may uplift and enlighten [their] walk with Jesus." But he nevertheless tends toward a certain ecumenicalism: The program for Esther includes an essay by a Tampa rabbi, and Lay promotes his Bible-based shows at a local Jewish Community Center. So Lay seems to be a true and tolerant believer, who thinks that musical theater can bring people closer to God. And with three shows in 17 months and a fourth on the way, he has to be taken seriously as a much-in-evidence local talent.
So what's the quality of that talent? Well, speaking solely of Song of Songs, Lay is an excellent composer, a tolerable lyricist, and no great shakes as a dramatist. For two hours in TBPAC's Jaeb Theater, Song of Songs brings us powerful melodies, interesting lyrics and virtually no action. What there is, is a standoff: a Shepherdess who loves a Shepherd, a King who desires the Shepherdess, and no progress in anyone's story till the last minutes of Act Two. And with so little dramatic movement, the songs, however musically interesting, ultimately become tedious: how many restatements of this same triangle theme can we swallow in a single evening? Fortunately, the show boasts some fine singing, and Lay is capable of surprising us at any moment with another inventive tune. But if he wants his Biblical musicals to keep us happily in our seats, he's going to have to do better: We want change in our dramas, the unfolding of a story, preferably some suspense. And this holds true regardless of subject matter.
Speaking of which, Lay has chosen for himself a difficult task. Because The Song of Songs is the most controversial book in the Bible, one with frankly erotic language spoken by an indeterminate number of unnamed characters, two, at least, of whom are lovers. Pious commentators, nevertheless, find a religious message in the text. To traditional Jews it expresses God's love for the Children of Israel, while Christian exegesis sees the book as illustrating Jesus' love for the Church, or for the individual believer.
It's this last view that Lay elaborates in his dramatization. He imagines a Shepherdess in love with a Jesus-like Shepherd figure, and the challenge that she faces when King Solomon, representing worldliness, desires her for his wife (I'm not imagining this allegory; Lay offers it plainly in a program note). In the course of two acts, the Shepherdess struggles to remain true to her celestial lover (whom she sees only in dreams), even while Solomon and all his court try to win her to a more earthly union. Finally, she dies — this is the part least supported by the Biblical text — and in heaven is united with the faithful Shepherd, who promises to take her "to another land/ where our love will conquer time and space."
Now, there's no reason why this framework can't support an exciting and, yes, religious plot full of adventure and peril. But the problem with Lay's plot is that it's all beginning and ending with nothing at all like a middle. Fortunately, his talent as a musician is sufficiently strong to almost console us for these failings. His melodies are best when he's writing for the ensemble; then they're innovative, occasionally gospel-flavored, always earning our attention. His music for soloists occasionally sounds Andrew Lloyd Webberish — I'm not a big Webber fan — but even so, there are some lovely tunes worthy of re-hearing. As a lyricist, on the other hand, Lay belongs to that breed for whom "love" and "dove," "moon" and "June" just can't keep a polite distance. But at times he earns our admiration, as in "Love Makes the World Go Round" with its clever quotes from celebrated love songs, and the stirring anthem "Love's Finale," with its promise that "There will come a day/ When tears will wash away."
As for the musical's actor-singers, the best of them are Lay himself as King Solomon (imagine a bearded, dour John Mellencamp) and Vicente Ormila as the Shepherd. Emilia Sargent as the Shepherdess is ingratiating enough, but she has difficulty in the higher registers, and in any case has too much stage time and not enough action (A subplot! A subplot! My kingdom for a subplot!). The 13 members of Solomon's Court have voices of variable quality, but could hardly be better when singing in unison.
The turntable set, by Geary Jarrett and Ed Goebel, is not one of the show's strengths: From a vineyard to King Solomon's throne room, the locations always seem underfurnished. Lona Lay's modern costumes are, for the Shepherdess, beautiful, for the King, witty (think Mellencamp again, in a bare-chested rock video), for the Shepherd, too emblematic, and for the Court, just uninspired. The show's musical accompaniment, by the way, is recorded. But even without a live orchestra in the house, one can't help noticing Lay's prodigious musical skills.
And one can't help but hope that he'll solve his problems with narrative and bring us a genuinely satisfying Biblical drama. In the meantime, it's only fair to point out that Stephan Scott Lay is the real article, a multi-talented artist whose arrival on the local scene can only make Bay area theater more exciting.
He deserves our welcome and our respectful attention.
Contact Performance Critic Mark E. Leib at 813-248-8888, ext. 305, or [email protected].