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The Glorious Ones

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Julyana Soelistyo, John Kassir, Jeremy Webb, Marc Kudisch, and David Patrick Kelly.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

"Ambition: If you don't have that, there's no point in going on - change with the times, or get off the stage." The delicious irony of these words is that they emanated from the pen of Lynn Ahrens, who inserted them into her new musical The Glorious Ones, which just opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. One would hope that the lyricist and librettist, who's been at the musical theatre game for nearly 20 years now, would know better than to toss out such live ammunition. But if she's willing to throw, I'm willing to catch: This is not only the least ambitious musical Ahrens and her partner, composer Stephen Flaherty, have ever written, it's also their direst and dreariest.

This adaptation of Francine Prose's 1974 novel sets out to chart the history of the Italian performing tradition of commedia dell'arte through the eyes of the group that "founded" and popularized it, The Glorious Ones of the title, as well as document how to theatre changed from an actors' to a writers' medium. One can see how this subject would hold enough appeal for playwrights and music-makers, who would likely cherish the idea of an all-bouncy, all-laughy trip through some of the nimblest and most colorful theatre in history. That it was molded into the delightful, and extremely long-running, Jones & Schmidt musical The Fantasticks suggests it's not an inherently bad idea.

As realized here, however, the commedia must be coming tomorrow because it's all tragedia tonight. Ahrens hasn't illuminated anything about the characters and shtick that comprised the form, only inflated their one-note personalities to explosive extremes that spoil the central joke that the likes of Pantalone (David Patrick Kelly), Dottore (John Kassir), mischievous servant Francesco (Jeremy Webb), and the rest are the same offstage as on, and thus only need to live to be funny.

But there's nothing whatsoever amusing about their lives or their interactions, which play up the on-the-edge existence of on-the-fringe performers in the 16th century with the sound and fury of a William Inge flop. Nor do their diegetic entertainments, or scenarios, do more than stroke the boundaries set forth over 500 years ago. Fart gags, swearing, and over-the-top histrionics remain a part of our culture (whole sections of the film industry depend on it), but here suggest only dusty obligation to antiquated ideas, not unbridled artistic freedom. (The sets by Dan Ostling and costumes by Mara Blumenfeld are likewise uninspired.)

Natalie Venetia Belcon and Marc Kudisch.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Agile, unpredictable humor is not the forte of director-choreographer Graciela Daniele, who's much better at conceptualizing drama bursting from song and dance (as with Michael John LaChiusa's Bernarda Alba last year) than imposing it on a piece that has no locomotion of its own. The actors can barely help - most of them are so leaden that even the most talented theatrical alchemist could not turn them to gold: Led by the usually reliable Marc Kudisch (at his vainglorious best and his comic worst) as the troupe's leader Flaminio Scala and also including Julyana Soelistyo and Erin Davie, most approach their roles with the casual unease of glossophobic physics majors giving lectures in art history. Only Natalie Venetia Belcon, Avenue Q's original Gary Coleman, has a spark of erotic vivacity that suggests her desire to make Columbina (Flaminio's saucy wife, onstage and off) someone of relevance to 2007.

Though Flaherty's melodies are as excellent and hummable as always, and have been orchestrated by Michael Starobin with a charming period flair, Ahrens has supplied nothing that challenges or expands on the few good ideas that occasionally arise. There's real potential in the tense-again-soft-again relationship of Flaminio and Francesco, the stalwart who wants to maintain the status quo and the firebrand who wants the art to evolve, but Ahrens leaves the depths of their saber-edged animosity almost entirely unexplored. The prospect of legitimate conflict was apparently too much for anyone involved to bear; a plot-intensive romance between Francesco and the meddling diarist Isabella (Davie) receives hardly more attention.

That makes this the first Ahrens and Flaherty show that all but outwardly dismisses human emotions as useless affectations. Even the duo's less-successful shows - among them the recent Seussical, A Man of No Importance, and Dessa Rose - tapped into the hearts of characters lost amid tricky situations, which made their attempts at musicalization, if flawed, at least admirable. They've never matched their breakout success Once On This Island, but have never before strayed this close to apathetic soullessness.

No moment better exemplifies the show's crippling creative disconnect than a late-show moment that invokes modern analogues to the commedia archetypes. "A little man with a moustache and a bowler hat eating his shoe," one person cries, just before another identifies "a woman with carrot-red hair stuffing chocolates in her mouth." Pointing up the triumphs of Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball only reminds us of the expertly executed comic genius that inarguably derived from commedia, but is utterly missing in The Glorious Ones.

The Glorious Ones
Through January 6
Mitzi E. NewhouseTheatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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