There's a brilliant darkness at the heart of Michael John LaChiusa's "See What I Wanna See." With slinky rhythms and shadowy melodic lines, his songs of yearning -- for sex, for money, for God -- insinuate themselves into your brain like a stiff drink. They're seductive, disturbing, and somehow irresistibly exhilarating.
For the two loosely connected parts of this musical, now making its Boston debut in a sharp and sensitive production at the Lyric Stage Company, LaChiusa plucked some ideas from the same short stories that inspired Akira Kurosawa's masterwork, "Rashomon." Like that film, and like Ryunosuke Akutagawa's original stories, "See What I Wanna See" presents the same events from multiple perspectives in order to explore the nature of truth and of storytelling itself.
If this sounds awfully cerebral for a musical, rest assured that LaChiusa makes it sing. The first act, titled "R Shomon," gives us the same plot as "Rashomon," with different witnesses offering wildly divergent accounts of a crime. But it adds a few layers by transposing the action from Japan to New York City and setting it on the night in 1950 when "Rashomon" made its New York debut. It also, in its central triangle, gives us three sexy, scary characters whose narratives are as compelling as they are mutually exclusive.
At first glance, the second act doesn't seem to have much connection to the first. "Gloryday " focuses on a priest who, in a crisis of faith after 9/11, sets up a hoax to gull the faithful -- then finds himself transformed by his own lie. His encounters with various believers and doubters, as well as with his own conflicted heart, make for a powerful and absorbing exploration of fear and faith. Meanwhile, a tale of doomed lovers in medieval Japan, told first from the woman's and then from the man's point of view, opens each act.
So how does all this go together, you wonder? Not in a straight, linear way. But, like the "Rashomon" device itself, LaChiusa's juxtaposition of these various narratives creates echoes and reverberations that deepen the emotional and intellectual effect of the whole. We hear passionate protest and self-doubt from both wife and priest, sneaky self-promotion from the thief and a reporter, outraged betrayal from husband and believer, and each individual cry draws strength from its relation to the others.
Stephen Terrell's subtle direction lets us hear the echoes without hammering them home; he unobtrusively keeps changing our perspective, and keeps the actors constantly shifting around the angled steps of Brynna C. Bloomfield's spare, evocative set. At first, the backdrop of screens intersected by strong verticals seems vaguely Japanese; later it looks more like a stand of trees in Central Park. We're inside; we're outside; we're watching a crowd or getting inside one man's head. It all depends on how you look at it.
As for the cast, Andrew Giordano's big voice gives the slightly shady husband of the first act an appealing gravitas; Giordano demonstrates an equally commanding presence as the medieval lover and as a screw-loose CPA who longs for Act II's hoax to be true. Aimee Doherty makes a seductively perky wife and a perkily seductive lover, and her singing is terrific.
If newcomer Andrew Schufman's voice is sometimes a little thin for the thief, his sinuous stride and nasty charm compensate nicely. (Rafael Jaen's rakish costuming helps, too.) Brendan McNab, meanwhile, provides a believably scruffy janitor in the first act, then lets it rip as the tortured priest. And June Baboian finds both humor and a deep spirituality in her roles, first as a medium and then as the priest's skeptical aunt.
This is not a musical for your aunt, at least not if she dislikes profanity and simulated sex. But aunts can surprise you. Certainly Father Michael's does: When he tells her, despairing, that "I believe that God is no more," the once atheist Aunt Monica turns the tables.
"But I love you," she declares. "Where does that come from?"
Like so much in this intelligent and multifaceted piece, this moment resonates with a host of the evening's other explorations of fear and love. But it also, indelibly, stands on its own.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.