It’s a standard ploy: invite a figure from the popular culture into the realm of highbrow culture and you just might sell more tickets, exposing certain art forms to an audience that wouldn’t otherwise be in the seats—and who might then come back. I say “just might” because this doesn’t always work: Stephen Schwartz, composer of Wicked, failed to get the Broadway crowd all the way up to City Opera last season for his first opera, Seance on a Wet Afternoon. (That it was ravaged by many critics didn’t help.) But Paul McCartney? He’s gotta be about as safe a bet as a T-bond.
And so we have Ocean’s Kingdom at New York City Ballet, the former Beatle’s first ballet score (though not his first foray into orchestral music). McCartney also wrote the story, a classic Romeo and Juliet tale with a touch of The Little Mermaid, in which a male and female meet cute at a party and fall immediately in love—but one is from under the sea, the other from dry land! (Just like sharks and jets, literally.) And for the most part, the music sounds like all the underwater music you’ve heard since Saint Saens wrote “Aquarium“—or at least since Walt Disney set Fantasia‘s piscatorial ballet to Tchaikovsky’s “Arabian Dance.” That is, it’s steeped in aquatic cliches.
There are sad strings droning long notes, some bells, even a splashy hit of the gong, that wettest of the percussion instruments. It’s soft, mellow and blue, both figuratively and then literally with the cerulean set-projections by S. Katy Tucker and the aqua and sea-green costumes by Stella McCartney. Later, there are a few sweeping and sweet love themes that are as pretty as you’d expect from Paul McCartney, and some jaunty dances—including a jazzy second scene that evokes Gershwin’s An American in Paris score and also the movie, with fiery, stylized color—but generally the music feels rooted in the dull tradition of modern film score: it tells no story of its own. Great music for stage or film becomes a partner of the images or theater that accompany it. The Ocean’s Kingdom score doesn’t need a partner. It needs a master.
Ocean’s Kingdom will be performed again Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and then several more times in January. Click here For more information.