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A CurtainUp Review
Triumph of Love
By Elyse Sommer
Who would have thought that a recently risen from obscurity (in this country) 18th Century French playwright would provide the fertilizer from which one of the most delightful musicals to hit Broadway would blossom. But that's exactly the case. As translated by James Magruder, who also wrote the book, playwright Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux's 1732 Commedia dell'Arte play of deception and philosophical and gender metamorphoses has become a thoroughly modern Marivaux, with his invented language of love (known to Marivaux mavens as Marivaudage ) translated into music by Jeffrey Stock and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. It's not a sung-through musical, nor is it of the tune-humming variety though there are four show-stopping numbers--"Serenity" sung by Betty Buckley, "The Tree" by Buckley and F. Murray Abraham, "Henchmen are Forgotten" by the gardener and the Harlequin, and "What Have I Done" by Susan Egan. The lyrics are very much of a piece with the spoken dialogue and the music will resonate most for Sondheim fans.
If you expect the sort of stylized wit associated with plays for the French aristocracy during the era known a the Age of Reason, you'll find Heidi Ettinger bright green felt fairy tale set and the characters emerging from its doors, walkways, windows and pop-ups brushed with strokes broader than you anticipated. If you think Boys From Syracuse, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum and Scapin set to music, Once Upon a Mattress , you'll see that the broad brush and the double entendres in this sexual hall of mirrors, have not obscured Marivaux's sophistication. Underneath all the contemporary and allusionary jokiness, the playwright's more serious intent remains clear. He illuminates the way gender and philosophical confusions turn our attitudes towards the meaning to life and love into a hall of mirrors. He believes that love triumphs, but not without its concomitant disappointments.
The plot, for the record, revolves around Spartan princess Léonide (Susan Egan), whose love for Agis (Christopher Sieber), has been fired up by a single glimpse. To complicate matters, her throne was wrongfully gained by her family from, you guessed it, the object of her affection. Agis has been raised to be a man ruled by books and reason rather than passion by his passionless book-wise uncle Hermocrates (F. Murray Abraham) and his aunt, the equally scholarly and sexless Hesione (Betty Buckley). Typical of such comedies, the princess, aided by her wily servant and conspirator Corine (Nancy Opel), resorts to gender disguise to woo the prince out of his sheltered existence To further add to the plot's convolutions, we have Corine's counterparts in the prince's domain, a gardener (Kevin Chamberlin) and Harlequin (Roger Bart) to provide pratfalls and puns--the latter, in keeping with the set, heavy on gardening images. (Editor's aside: Some of this may also be inspired by Shakepeare's penchant for gardening metaphors (many of these were amply documented in this reviewer's Metaphors Dictionary though the Frenchman escaped our net when we were working on that text)
Director Michael Mayer's deftly navigates the performers through the twists and turns bringing turmoil to the serene garden scene. The pace is fast and frothy from the minute the yards and yards of the specially constructed gold lame curtain rises. For those who feel more emphasis on the serious undertones in this type of drama and a less irreverent translation, I would suggest that the consistency found here worked better than the attempt to blend things present in another cntemporary look at a Marivaux play I saw this past summer (The Inconstant Lovers). What struck me as off-putting in that play, sounded just right in this musical.
With only seven performers this is very much a chamber piece both in terms of the cast size and its work as an ensemble. As in any good chamber music performance, these actors work well together and shine brightly when the spotlight is on them. Betty Buckley fans will wish she was on more, but when she is you're just glad she's there with her terrific comedic delivery and rich voice. The already mentioned "Serenity" number at the end of the first act is nothing short of sensational. Susan Egan as the princess is sprightly and endearing and in fine voice. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for F. Murray Abraham whose singing voice is not only non-existent but off-key. Still, his presence is so commanding, his line delivery so deliciously crisp that you end up saying, who cares. Nancy Opel, who was hilarious in her last gig (Mere Mortals), is again in top form here. As for the other two servants, while Kevin Chamberlin and Roger Bart are good, and better than good in the H"enchmen Are Forgotten" number, I couldn't quite quench visions of Bill Irwin and Christopher Evan Welch, (last seen as a team in Scapin and Welch in Arms and the Man at the Williamstown Theatre Festival) -- but then neither of them sing and one non-singer in a seven member musical is enough.
Not yet mentioned and very much part of the fun of this production are Catherine Zuber's bright and witty costumes. The flamboyant and exaggerated outfits for Buckley and Abraham's philosophical transformation are delightfully silly, right to the hat with its ship symbolizing the spirit freed to feel as well as think.
Without giving it away, don't start fidgeting to get into your coat too soon. If you do, you might just miss Betty Buckley's hilarious last line.
Some links you might want to follow after reading this review:
Our interview with James Magruder
Our review of Inconstant Lovers
Review of Scapin
details about Metaphors Dictionary
Review Arms and the Man
Review Mere Mortals
Review Once Upon a Mattress