Sunday, July 08, 2012

Roman Holiday at the Guthrie Theater, a Review

So I apparently need to take a break from seeing plays at the Guthrie Theater, because I am not enjoying them. They are not able to overcome the killing deadness of my heart, I guess. So it's time to look elsewhere for theatrical experiences, because I am not getting much out of what is happening there.

I can certainly appreciate all the effort that went into mounting this, as well as the way the cast sang and danced its collective heart out. The costumes were exquisite, the sets were more technologically sophisticated that we are used to seeing on the proscenium stage. The play itself is a lovely portmanteau--take the screenplay from the Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant souffle Roman Holiday and dress it up in some Cole Porter tunes, and hey presto! A brand new stage musical! One that trades on the current infatuation with 1960s style, that has glamor bred into its very DNA, that's familiar to the largely geriatric demographic that supports regional theater these days.

You can imagine a stereotypical Hollywood producer chomping on his enormous cigar and growling "It's going to be the biggest thing since nickel Havanas!"

But then the reality hits, and the souffle deflates. The story--is stale and rather static. It's An American in Paris set in Rome. It's original purpose was as a travelogue dressed up in couture and a love story. Filmed entirely on location, rather than on soundstage sets, it gave a post-WWII audience a chance to actually see a city that most of them would never travel to.

The story (of the play, which may or may not deviate from the movie, which I've never seen) is the unlikely meeting between Princess Anne, the heir of a unnamed kingdom, and Joe Bradley, an American newspaper reporter working in Rome, who secretly wants to be a songwriter. Anne, worn out from a grueling good will tour of European capitals, escapes one night from her bedroom and ends up in a trattoria where Joe is celebrating his upcoming appointment with a Broadway producer who wants to hear his songs. Anne has been given a sedative before her escape, and she falls asleep. Joe assumes she's drunk and takes her back to his apartment to sober her up with some espresso in hopes of finding out her address so he can return her to her home. She falls asleep before he can brew the coffee, and the next morning he recognizes her from the local newspaper reporting that "The Princess is ill and has canceled all her appearances." Smelling a real exclusive, he squires her around the city, visiting all the tourist locations she's never been able to see. By the end of the day, he's fallen for her charms and decided that he can't sell her out, but at least now he as a subject for his Broadway play.

Like I said, it's a travelogue, and a lot of production cash went into developing a diorama of an apartment for Joe--which actually looks more like a Spanish colonial style guesthouse at Chateau Marmont, but who's quibbling? It rolls forward on a silent platform and then retreats so the scrim can drop. It's quite charming, like a little dollhouse for a Daddy doll who wears a suit, tie, and hat, and a Mommy doll in a crinoline skirt and shirtwaist. Which is to say, it's a lot of twee that nearly overwhelms the actors. There is a trompe d'oeil approximation of the Trevi Fountain which rises up from below the stage, and really fails to look like more than the two dimensional object that it is. From straight on, the tricked out shadows and lights are effective enough, but it so thoroughly fails to fill the three dimensional space that a fountain should command that it really fails to be remotely convincing that this is any place special.

The stage flat manages to approximate the central figure in its niche, but misses all the statuary in front and further fails to even hint at the substantial water basin in front. (Photo from here.) Of course, I suspect the actual fountain is larger than the entire proscenium stage, but the problem is--it's just unimpressive as stagecraft. In the age of Google Street View and image searches and inexpensive trans-Atlantic air fares--this story really doesn't have a reason to exist unless the characters get pumped up, or the conflict becomes more meaningful, or something.

Thus the justification for the Cole Porter tunes. Because musical romance would elevate the travelogue into something transcendent. And you would think Cole Porter would be up to the task. You would be wrong.

Maybe it was the musical choices--most of them were what I would characterize as C-list songs. "Experiment"? "I'm Giving A Ball Tonight"? Have you even heard of most of these? I can answer that for you, and the answer is "no." There is good reason for that. They are fine, workmanlike songs, but not the kind of unforgettable numbers that abound in a show like Anything Goes. At least, not for the first three-quarters of the show. By the last half of the last act we get "Everytime We Say Goodbye," "Just One of Those Things," and "Night and Day," but by then it is far far too late, and a couple of good songs can't save the production.

Maybe the songs are better than I could tell from their performance, but there was such a heavy reliance on the Porteresque forced rhymes that midway through "Experiment" I was wincing before the pun was delivered because they arrived with depressing regularity. And "I'm Giving A Ball Tonight" might have been a fine song, but it really didn't benefit from repeating its verse--it felt like padding. The relentlessly cheerful orchestration tended make all the songs sound the same (with a few exceptions, at the end of the show, see above re: too bloody late).

There were some lively dance numbers featuring a large ensemble, but by the end of the show, the "big, emotional numbers" tended to rely on the discredited "park and bark" model of staging. Poor Princess Anne--her character had very little to do by the end of the play except stand in one place and look with puppy dog eyes while Joe belted out yet another pun-laden tune. 

The best part of the production were the Great Broads, Michele Barber as the princess's aunt, and Christina Baldwin as Francesca, the spitfire Italian cabaret singer who was delightfully styled to the Sophia Loren archetype and who gave crackling energy and comic timing to an otherwise rather dour story.

So, is it worth seeing? If you don't have anything better to do, it's not horrible, although I was bored well before intermission, so I can't actually recommend it.

The larger problem is that I obviously need to seek out different cultural outlets, because I am not having any success with the tent-pole events that define current culture. It's just that I want to like this stuff. I really want to go to the mainstream plays, the blockbuster movies, the popular television shows and I really want to like them. I want the built in cultural conversation that attends things that are popular, and at least that stuff is easy to find. That stuff comes with its own communities of affinity who discuss and evaluate and lovingly parody and mash-up and play with these properties. But because I don't enjoy Roman Holiday, or its equivalent, I end up bitter and disappointed and I don't get to participate in the fandom conversation anyway.

So my goal is obviously to search the less central pop cultural events and try to crack open that black heart that way.


Anonymous said...

I saw the play last night and was feeling guilty half-way through the first act. What was wrong that I couldn't enjoy this earnest and perfect effort to entertain. By the end I knew: too earnest, too perfect, too intent on pretty faces and flawless production over passion or organic soul.
The last scene of the news conference and confrontation of all feelings was actually great, with emotion and no Cole Porter song shoehorned in to hog the attention.

Gary Vogel said...

I found the play to be truly scandalous. In an artistic culture that has found anti-moral and anti God material so universally lauded, it's become the new establishment view. An overtly gay character spouting one more, oh so clich├ęd God bashing line is enough to make me yawn. Oh Please! The artistic class has become the “boring, self-indulgent, and ever so predictable” class. And now the squeaky clean, and morally upright IS the new rebellion.