Review: “What about Jesus? Better yet, what about love?”: "The Unseen World" Lets the Light in Through the Cracks with a Bang Up Performance
The Unseen World
Created by Ira Marlowe
Episodes released January-March 2023
Available at the Unseen World Musical website
When I finally reached the ninth episode of The Unseen World, in which the cast belts out the titular final song, I was in tears. Good, deep, soul-sourced tears. But I was also loading the dishwasher. My partner entered the kitchen about this time and asked if I was crying. Indeed, yes, I was. He asked what was wrong, and I gulped out the words, “It’s so good!” I had been listening to the new podcast musical by Ira Marlowe over the past couple days during runs, commutes, and other daily activities like doing dishes. It certainly had the feeling of something I had done many times during the pandemic—elevate routine daily tasks with a bit of wonder and hope. In fact, the musical’s move to podcast was necessitated by the pandemic. Originally, The Unseen World was meant to be performed in Marlowe’s small performance space in Berkeley, CA, but then it went the way of so many creative projects in 2020—back to the drawing board. What Marlowe eventually put together was an incredibly talented cast that includes established talents Deborah Geffner (All that Jazz, The Morning Show, Mad Men, and Scandal), John Shortt (leading tenor in a slew of operas), and Jesenia (Power Book III: Raising Kanan, The Affair, and The Guestbook) as well as emerging performers Alexis Peters, Jared Anthony, and Spencer Gonzales.
The story revolves around the wild adventure through multiple dimensions, what the musical calls heavens, of Miri (Peters), a former physics student now hospitalized and sedated because she keeps talking about a secret device that has incredible power and yet is being hidden from us all by the government. We follow Miri, her brother Bryce (Anthony), and Ralphie (Gonzales), Bryce’s boyfriend, as they travel between the different heavens/dimensions (color-coded based on the mood of the heaven), thinking about what their lives meant and facing a cast of characters who judge them quite harshly for their innocuous deeds on earth. There are touching moments such as when Bryce empathizes with Miri’s pain. And there are uncomfortable sexual moments such as when Ralphie is violently sexually harassed by cops in Blue Heaven. And then there are the breakthrough moments like when the trio plot to get the hell out of the heavens. But of course, it is the music that brings a rather complex narrative together. The range of musical styles keeps things moving for what would otherwise be a difficult narrative to follow in podcast form.
Perhaps the overriding metaphor in the musical is the repeated line in Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” that “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” In the song “Cracks,” Pearl (Jesenia) tells Bryce, “There are cracks in this world. And they say that’s how the light gets in.” All the characters have cracks, and the world they inhabit is falling apart. The violence they experience in the heavens is far worse than any of their small misdeeds on earth, but the trio is searching for something more than the world gave them. Marlowe’s musical is not the first to make use of Cohen’s hopeful yet enigmatic lyric. Jason Robert Brown’s 1995 Off-Broadway Songs for a New World opens with the lyrics “The surface sometimes cracks to reveal the track to a new world.” Brown’s musical/song-cycle is also concerned with characters whom the world has beaten down and who are searching for alternatives—a perennial theme it would seem. I can only imagine what Marlowe thought of his pre-pandemic lyrics as he saw the world fall apart in 2020.
The private experience of a podcast performance, no matter how public the place might be in which one listens, is still a private experience that does not allow for the sort of connection live performances do. And that is fine. I am glad Marlowe got this project back up and out to the world—especially for my dishwasher times. But for a musical so driven by the need and power of connection to others, I do hope Marlowe’s dream of a live performance comes to fruition soon. Perhaps he should think of some free public performances—those things we used to wait weeks for during the pandemic just to have a little connection worth looking forward to. I just wonder if the podcast form is too small for the story and music of Marlowe’s musical. Other podcasts have opened up the form to longer narratives and musicals. Just before the pandemic, Loveville High showed many what could be done with a podcast musical. The Chilean podcast Caso 63, translated into English and performed as Case 63, starring Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac, has seen wild success. And, of course, Homecoming was the first podcast to streaming series. But with the podcast bubble burst and the industry undergoing massive layoffs, the form as a home for smaller productions is uncertain.
Turning the ship around
The world seems in rough shape at the moment, pandemic or not. Can the ship be turned around? Miri asks this question in the finale. She wonders, “It’s all going wrong. Is that so paranoid?” The answer, according to Miri, Bryce, and Ralphie is a resounding yes. But it is a yes to love and not the wild myths (yes, they come for Jesus) that seem to hold a broken world together and in which broken people tend to find refuge. And I agree. The deep connectedness of all people and their environments is the most powerful concept this musical delivers. But it requires a little work on our part—opening our eyes. The world seems a lot more beautiful when the characters open their eyes to see it. It remains to be seen if we too can open ours.
-Joseph L. V. Donica