Synthaxis Theatre Co.'s "The Tale of the Comet" doesn't do any high flying at the California Museum of Science and Industry. It sputters along, out of focus and out of gas, from the start.
The musical for children, written by Alice Josephs, has an admirable aim: to educate its audience about the nature of comets in general and about one remarkable 19th-Century woman--Maria Mitchell, astronomer, mathematician and feminist, who discovered a new comet in 1847.
Under Bill Miller's direction, the story unfolds bumpily through song and dance, stodgy flashbacks into Mitchell's life and a jocular rivalry between macho Comet Halley (David Packer) and girlish Comet No-Name (Clare Carey).
We learn that a comet's tail can be more than 100 million miles in length, that a comet has a "spot"--its nucleus. We're told as fact that the dinosaurs disappeared because a comet "bumped" into the Earth. (Although there is growing evidence to support this idea, it is still a theory.)
Maria Mitchell is portrayed by Sharon A. Hanian, who sings such lines as "Father, I am so curious, please don't be furious, it's fantastical what I can see." Hanian, solemn and pale, is required to dance moonily alone and with Comet No-Name.
Carolann Wynne's unimaginative choreography is an awkward element here, as is Angela Carole Brown's mishmash of jazz and ballet, uncomfortably executed.
G.R. Smith comes off the best. His narration is clear and to the point, and he gives distinct characters to his other roles of a dour Quaker and a Harvard professor.
And he doesn't have to sing.
With the exception of the stentorian tones of Tony Richards, who portrays Mitchell's father, voices here are weak.
Mitchell was astoundingly accomplished. She was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Science in Boston and the first to be admitted into the American Philosophical Society.
She was a mathematics professor at Vassar and founder of the Assn. for the Advancement of Women. She believed that women are naturally suited for the sciences and worked for years for their recognition.
Young girls who hesitate to pursue the sciences should find Mitchell well worth knowing about. Synthaxis does deserve credit for attempting to present the story of an unusual woman. Perhaps some will be curious enough to learn on their own who Mitchell really was.
Performances continue in Kinsey Auditorium through June 14, on Saturdays and Sundays at 1 and 3 p.m. (213) 877-4726)