Review | Telling ‘The Odyssey’ through Penelope’s eyes, with songs

Willkommen, bienvenue and all the rest: The stage is set in the intimate performance space for what looks to be an evening of cabaret. Lights glow low on a warm wood platform scattered with richly patterned rugs, accented with a drum kit, an upright piano and a handful of music stands.

Look closer, though, and the peaked thrust of that stage begins to suggest the prow of a ship, or perhaps the gable of a house — and is that a ribbon of sand that outlines it against the dark sea of the theater’s floor?

Call it Club Ithaca: We’re in the island kingdom where Odysseus famously hasn’t been seen for a couple of decades — and where his long-suffering wife has kept the home fires burning, fending off the swarm of suitors who want to claim not just her hand but the throne that comes with it. And the singer-narrator who’ll take up the central microphone for an excursion through that landscape of waiting is the lady herself: Penelope, wife of Odysseus, daughter of Icarius, mother of Telemachus, defined primarily in Homer’s epic by her relationships to the men in her life.

This is “Penelope, a wonderfully ingratiating new musical from songwriter Alex Bechtel and his co-bookwriters Grace McLean and Eva Steinmetz, who’ve set out to center the heroine a little more firmly than that. And while the result isn’t quite a revolutionary reframing, Steinmetz’s staging for Signature Theatre — the show’s area premiere, after an initial production at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival last fall — makes an intelligently emotional case for the shift in focus.

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A heck of a showcase, too, for lead performer Jessica Phillips, who musters an intriguing sense of interiority that never curdles into indulgence. She’s loose and snarky one minute (for songs such as “Drunk Iliad,” which compresses a Trojan War’s worth of essential exposition into an efficient “Ladies Who Lunch”-flavored package), then centered and commanding for more serious moments. Most memorable is the lyrical gestural language she and Steinmetz have found for passages describing Penelope’s various devotions: her prayers, her weaving, her bedtime rituals. They’ll return, these distilled and piquant semiotic signals, in the evening’s loveliest moment, a wordless sequence that speaks volumes to what Odysseus’s eventual return might look and feel like for his soul mate.

It’s undeniably a star turn for Phillips, but one of the singularly appealing things about the way Bechtel et al. have structured “Penelope” is the way Ben Moss’s terrific band feels so much like a part of the action. They’re a black-clad, string-fueled Greek chorus, even channeling the voice of a goddess in one wry and revealing scene, and the way this show’s music wraps itself around book and lyrics feels so thoroughly intimate it’s nigh on sexual.

And what splendid musics Bechtel has written: “Penelope” is a chamber musical in more than one way, its orchestration that of a classical piano quartet with the addition of that drum set, and with musical flavors suggesting everything from country-folk rambunctiousness to the spare and ghostly esoterics of Arvo Pärt. (I heard a hint of Joni Mitchell, too, when Phillips tackled a high passage in one song with a light and limber version of her otherwise steely upper register.)

There’s a famous thing in Penelope’s story about how she keeps those suitors at arm’s length for so long: She tells them she’ll make a choice when she finishes her weaving, but every night after they pass out around their campfires she unravels the work she’s done that day. In “Penelope’s” telling, Phillips’s heroine talks of the ever-new pictures she makes with each new swath of fabric as though they’re each an adventure — a kind of escape, travel without moving, storytelling in the time-stealing mode of Scheherazade. I left thinking I would gladly have listened for another day.

Penelope, through April 21 at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va. About 75 minutes without intermission.

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