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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Despite the fun provided by all the swordplay play and wordplay the story has become dated — especially in this day of plastic surgery, email and text communication and women being less easily smitten by fancy words. But that makes it a special challenge for directors and actors to tap into the plot's inherent strengths. Updates vary from a bit oif tweaking to major. But while new versions are not as frequently given major productions as Hamlet, productions do keep popping up, usually with a star in the lead.
Having seen the always sublime Frank Langella in a disappointing production when the Roundabout Company was still at the Criterion Center, I had a sense of Cyrano fatigue about seeing it at Barrington Stage in 2014. However, Julianne Boyd's staging was so lively and entertaining that it restored my enthusiasm for all the derring-do and high flown poetry. ( my review ). My regained enthusiasm was bolstered when the Roundabout tackled it again with great success in 2012 ( my review ).
Now comes another new look at the story of Cyrano, the honorable warrior and poetic lover and Christian, the handsome but tongue-tied young nobleman who win the beautiful Roxaanne's love — Christian by virtues of his good looks, Cyrano with the letters he writes for him . This time the deceptive courtship is the always adventurous New Group's attempt to make the story work as a musical at long last. The idea of setting it to music began almost immediately after the play's premiere, but without much luck. While walltz king Victor Herbert 1999 operetta had lots of catchy songs the emphasis on comedy and a happy ending (Cyrano didn't die!) ended its life on opening night. A 1973 musical version failed despite being directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd, featuring a good score and Christopher Plummer as the lead; and the less said about a Dutch production at the Marquis Theater the better)..
With Peter Dinklage, the New Group's Cyrano certainly has a star with plenty of box office appeal. Film fans best know Dinklage for his break out role as the title character in The Station Agent and as Tyrone Lannister of the long-running Game of Thrones; theater goers have seen him deliver the goods with Chekhovian and Shakespeare characters. ( Though neither Simon Saltzman and I were especially happy with the Public Theater's Richard III It was Dinklage's Richard that made it worth seeing (review).
But this is not just a chance to see Dinklage give new meaning to Cyrano's sense of "otherness" which makes him unable to declare his love for the beautiful Roxanne, but to hear him sing. Which he does with a pleasantly deep baritone.
Given that Jasmine Cephas Jones (Hamilton's Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds) as his Roxanne, and the music is by a team of Grammy award winners — song writers AAron Dessner and Bryce Dessner and lyricists (Matt Berninger and Caryn Besser — I headed to the New Group's temporary home the DR2 Theater near Union Square filled with optimism that Cyrano had finally found its musical legs.
Much as I'd like to report that this is indeed the musical version that's on a par with West Side Story and Kiss Me Kate based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew, Dinklage actually would have been better served playing the part straight. He is a compelling actor who commands the stage whenever he's on. He projects genuine charm and taps into the humor and sorrow the role calls for. However, while his voice is, as already stated , pleasant enough, it's not musical theater star quality. Actually the only true star quality singing is done by Jasmne Cephane Jones's Roxanne; and Blake Jenner 's Christian — yes, that's the handsome guy who also loves Roxanne but can't speak his love.
Since Dinklage's singing is good enough to add a feather, if not a diamond, in the crown of his successes , and he's well supported by the small, often double-tasking ensemble, the major problem is that the production overall lacks the snap,, crackle and pop to make the audience feel they've been present at the birth of something really special. The songs by Aaron Bessner and Bryce Dessner are easy on the ears, but not especially memorable; and the lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser hardly evoke Rostand's poetic richness. The more than a dozen songs are smoothly interspersed into the dialogue giving a sung-through feeling (which is probably why the program doesn't include a song list). Though there are a couple of quite lovely numbers, like "Need for Nothing" and "Someone To Say", there isn't really a big breakout number that wiill buzz around in your head after you leave the theater.
Adapter/Director Erica Scmidt (who happens to be Dinklage's wife) has ditched all but one nose reference. This allows Dinklage, a good-looking man with a shock of dark hair who happens to be 4 feet 5 inches tall, to play Curano without relying on that outsized proboscis and help anyone emotionally crippled by the inabiility to deal with some real or perceived flaw to identify with Cyrano.
When the nose is brought up in Schmidt's adaptation, Cyrano instead of overlooking the play's villain, De Guiche (Ritchie Coster) staring at him, sarcastically asks "Would you like to commission my portrait? Perhaps we could pose together?" He confirms his atypical appearance with "What you've heard is true. I am not a rumor. I am living proof that God has a sick sense of humor." More moments like this might make this production more of a Wow. Still, this approach does also rob us of some of the original's most unforgettable lines.
Besides the missing nose references (along with the use of an artificail device) there's also no sword fighting to enliven things. One of Schmidt' s more welcome cuts was to skip Roxannee's visit to the regiment during the war. It's during that scene that has DeGuiche grandstanding his leadership of the starving troops that choreographers Jeff and Rick Kupperman create some of their more dynamic images.
Christine Jones and Amy Rubins have made good use of the theater's wide stage, with an upstage wall that features a handy opening to create a section showing theater goers (including Cyrano) in the orchestra during the play within a play. That opening is next used for the bakery workers in the plot building scene that follows. As for the famous balcony scenes, that back wall is again used to good effect.
Costumer Tom Brocker goes all out for very broad humor for the appearance of Montgomery (Scott Stangland), the actor Cyrano disdainfully chases off stage. But Brocker's combination of modern and period costumes tends to be somewhat visually confusing. Despite mood supporting lighting and sound by Jeff Croieter and Dan Moses Schreier the overall feel and look of this production somehow seems to want more spark and grandeur.
Perhaps the most fun and completely updated version of Rostand's play I've seen was also a musical. That one was brought all the way into the present as a new kind of high school musical, renamed Calvin Berger.. I first saw it as part of Barrington Stage's musical lab series. It had enough stage legs for a George Street Playhouse production, but unlike some of the teen geared shows recently making it all the way to Broadway, it hasn't caused that kind of buzz. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Dinklage will create enough of a buzz to further develop this Cyrano to have a life beyond this limited run.
Perhaps the story in which a troublesome nose is a critical plot element that should be considered for an update to fit our times, would be Pinochio. The perfect candidate to play the wooden marionette whose nose keeps growing because of his penchant for telling lies is currently busy tweeting his own fairy tales in the White House.
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Adapted by Erica Schmidt from Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Music by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessnerl.
Lyrics by Matt Berninger
Choreography by Jeff and Rick Kuperman
Directed by Erica Schmidt
Cast: Ritchie Coster (De Guiche), Josh A. Dawson (Le Bret), Peter Dinklage (Cyrano), Hillary Fisher (Orange Girl), Josh Franklin (Swing), Christopher Gurr (Jodelet), Blake Jenner (Christian), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Roxanne), Nehal Joshi (Ragueneau), Grace McLean (Chaperone Marie), Erika Olson (Ensemble / Swing) and Scott Stangland (Montgomery).
Scenic Design by Christine Jones and Amy Rubin
Costume Design by Tom Broecker
Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter,
Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier
Hair, Wig and Mkeup Design by Tommy Kurzman
Orchestrations by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner
Music Supervision by Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Music Direction by Ted Arthur
Music Coordination by Kristy Norter Production Stage Manager is Linda Marvel RuningTime is 2 hours and 10 minutes including 1 intermission
The New Group at the Daryl Roth Theatre 101 East 15th Street
From 10/12/19; opening 11/07/19; closing 12/22/19.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 11/03/19 press preview
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