Wednesday, June 7, 2017

"Roman Holiday"


Roman Holiday
Cole Porter (Music & Lyrics)
Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman & Paul Blake (Book)

Stephanie Styles & Drew Gehling
For one evening of eye-popping scenery changes, jaw-dropping choreography, and swirling skirts among Italian shopkeepers and Roman tourists, we are as close to being a part of a 1950s, movie-theatre audience as we could imagine ever being. Except, we are actually sitting in the Golden Gate Theatre in 2017 San Francisco watching a live reincarnation of the 1953, multi-Oscar-winning film, Roman Holiday.  As adapted by Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman & Paul Blake for this SHN world premiere, Roman Holiday clearly has its sights set for the Great White Way, turning the original movie’s script now into a full-blown musical, with the help -- but of course without the composer’s knowledge -- of Cole Porter.  Unfortunately, Mr. Porter might now be doing a few turns in his grave as he hears how some of his famous songs have been plopped into rather strange places, often with no help in advancing the plot.  (But more on that later.) 

The basic story of the original movie survives largely intact, and the look of a 1950s film is often enhanced by clever but appropriately 50s-kitschy projections by Sven Ortel.  An unspecified country’s crown princess, twenty-something Anne, is doing her Eva-Peron-type tour of European cities and is totally bored and exhausted by the time her entourage enters Rome.  She finds a chance to escape the watchful eyes of her doting Auntie, the aging Countess, and makes her way to explore the real world for what turns out to be a magical twenty-four hours of traversing all the wonders of the Eternal City. 

But first she falls asleep on a park bench and is rescued from a suspicious cop by a passer-by, an “American News Service” reporter, Joe Bradley.  He eventually realizes that this “Anya Smith” (as she introduces herself) is actually the missing Princess, now all in the news as suddenly ‘sick.’  Also keeping his true identity a secret, he solicits the help of his photographer pal, Irving (another expatriate American); and they set out to show “Anya’ Rome while planning on selling for big American bucks “Anne’s’ big, Roman, holiday story.  Irving is taking many photos surreptitiously via such means as a camera posing as a cigarette lighter (conveniently catching a shot of the royal Princess smoking her first cig).  But as must happen in any 1950s film, now musical, the guys’ plans of trickery begin to fall apart as two opposite-sex, locked eyes and several hot-breath moments of close-body dancing intervene.

The Cast of Roman Holiday
As alluded already, where this world premiere really works is largely in its looks via in its over all, big-budget production values.  Scenes of Rome are magnificently recreated by Todd Rosenthal, from gigantic, ancient portals to street scenes full of colorful vendor carts (fruit, flowers, wine, fish, gelato) and even to a grand Trevi Fountain that must be seen to be believed.  Peter Kavzorowski’s lighting creates magic in the day and night scenes and in the Roman sky that looms large in the background.  Members of the large ensemble take on multiple, quickly passing roles as Catherine Zuber dresses them in dazzling colors and exaggerated outfits that lend an animated film aspect to many scenes – scenes full of nuns, international tourists, local vendors, cops and detectives, paparazzi, as well as residents of the Princess’s royal household.

The part of the transition from film to stage musical that works so well as to justify the price of the ticket is Alex Sanchez’s choreography as executed by the talented ensemble.  In number after number, bodies fly over bodies as if lifted by hidden strings; couples jump, spin, and twirl at dizzying speeds; and dancers perform as many mind-blowing dance stunts and splits as can be fit into one evening.  And as they perform many numbers reminiscent of the early ‘50s as well as of Latin beats and forms, the ensemble sings in a collective voice that sounds about as Broadway perfect as one could ever expect.  Particularly wonderful and probably the highlight of the entire show is the “Experiment Ballet” of the first half where couples (including the Anne and Joe) dance heavenly as the Princess’s holiday escape indeed becomes a dream come true.

But where the adaption of this premiere does not yet quite work so well is in the selection of which Cole Porter songs to stick into the story.  Too often the songs chosen seem out of place and do not advance the plot (more like 1930s musicals than those premiering in the late ‘40s and ’50s by the likes of Rogers and Hammerstein when the music of musicals really started to matter).  Cole classics like “Night and Day,” “Take Me Back to Manhattan,” and “Begin the Beguine” become curiosities in their appearance, no matter how well performed.  That finding the right songs must have been a challenge for the creators is further highlighted by no less than six reprises during the course of the evening. 

There are certainly exceptions where some songs work well, with “Experiment” being a perfect choice where Joe tempts the Princess to spend the day with him:  “Experiment, whenever doubtful take a chance; experiment, and you’ll discover sweet romance.”  Here, the lyrics in fact become the needed dialogue.

Beyond the ensemble numbers, all featured songs are sung only by four characters.  The best of the lot by far – both in his portrayal and in his vocals – is Drew Gehling as Joe Bradley.  Palpable is the energy, likeability, and believability he brings to this ambitious, even devious news reporter who is about to undergo a major shift in his plans.  When Mr. Gehling takes the spotlight in such numbers as “Experiment” and “Easy to Love,” Cole Porter must be taking note with a big smile because his Joe finds ways to harvest every note to its full and intended potential.  So lightly does he float the upper atmosphere in “Easy to Love” with his pitch-perfect tenor voice that when he rounds corners suddenly to swell into a crescendo climax, the effect is awesomely arresting.

Less consistently noteworthy is Stephanie Styles as Princess Anne.  For one thing, her unidentified accent seems eventually to be all-encompassing of many possible locales, so much does it shift about.  She does successfully and often delightfully capture the young Princess’ wide-eyed curiosity to experience ‘life’ and rather bold daring to break away from a life-time of defined rules for royals.  However, when she sings, too often her warbling and sustained notes are too reminiscent of a certain Disney, animated Princess – namely Snow White.  (I almost expected little bluebirds to show up and hover around her head, waiting for instructions.) 

Joe’s and the Princess’s parting “Just One of Those Things” is another song where the lyrics actually appear in fact to be written for this particular musical.  In that final number with Joe, Ms. Styles pushes her Disney Princess tendencies aside and employs a more mature-voice as a beautifully strong soprano to make the number one of highlights – emotionally and musically --  of the evening.

Sara Chase & Jarrod Spector
As the photographer named Irving, Jarrod Spector is well cast in the sidekick role, often adding humor and wisecrack lines and being especially fun to watch as he finds ways to take his pics without being seen by the unsuspecting “Anya” (including hunching down in the back of a bicycling laundry deliverer’s container of dirty duds, popping up in wide curves and corners for a flash or two).  He too has a strong voice -- his being in the mid-tenor range -- and is able to show his own ability to show off a full range of sung dynamics in “Night and Day.”  However, the song’s arrangement is a strange one (interpolated on a higher part of the treble scale than normally heard), making the questionable selection of this particular song for this story even more puzzling.

Georgia Engel & Stephanie Styles
The creators have chosen to add a couple of characters not in the original movie for humor and lightheartedness, and that decision somewhat works but not always totally.  Georgia Engel -- fresh off a highly accredited (at least by this reviewer) role in Annie Baker’s John at A.C.T. – is Princess Anne’s Aunt, the Countess.  Ms. Engel seems to have been directed by Marc Bruni to reincarnate an aged Georgette Franklin Baxter from her Mary Tyler Moore days on TV.  The script even plays into that similarity in a way the audience immediately gets.  When the Princess early on says, “I am confused,” the Countess answers rather tongue-in-cheek, “Well that certainly does not come from my side of the family;” and the audience responds with one of the evening’s biggest, collective guffaws. 

The Countess also has a tendency to tell round-about stories as did Georgette, interjecting “Wait” when she realizes something is not quite right in the recounting.  This happens a couple too many times, and the joke wears out a bit as does the Georgette mimic.  But, Ms. Engel does get to wear some of the most fantastic outfits and hats of the show – ones that could only be worn by a royal and all seemingly from the closet of a certain British Queen and maybe her now-deceased Mum.  And it is wonderful yet again to see Ms. Engel on a San Francisco stage.

Another addition not in the film is Francesca Cervelli, a caricature-like, nightclub singer reminding one of Gina Lollobrigida, with appropriately huge bosoms bursting dangerously close to popping out and with an accent so Italian as to be cartoonish.  She is the would-be fiancé of a reticent Irving and is the vehicle for a couple of big club numbers.  “Begin the Beguine” is a vehicle not only for Sara Chase’s sexy swivels and seductive vocals, but also for four fantastic, male dancers who are deliciously rubbery in their perfectly matched and fluid body movements – all done with an implied wink to the audience that ‘we know this is overdone and silly.’  (Another costume wonder of Catherine Zuber is the red, sequined number Ms. Chase dons for this number, looking much like Jessica Rabbit from Who Censored Roger Rabbit?)

In the end, the question is, is Roman Holiday ready for Broadway?  Certainly, the opening night audience with its quick rise to a sustained, standing ovation would vote “Yes.”  But for all its wondrous production values and its memorable choreography, I have to believe there is work to be done on some song inclusions and maybe an adjustment for at least one of the leads.

Rating: 3 E

Roman Holiday continues through June 18, 2017, in world premiere at SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.

Photo Credits:  Joan Marcus


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