I begin with the bookJeannine Dominy (who also wrote the screenplay for the film of the same of name) has given us an admittedly fictionalized story of Veronica Franco, a sixteenth century Venetian courtesan, famous not only for her beauty, but also her intelligence: she was a published poet. Dominy admits (in a note included in the press materials) that she initially found it difficult to "whole-heartedly write a character who sold herself sexually," and resolved the issue by assuming that Veronica chose this course because she had an intellectual curiosity which courtesans were permitted to satisfy, while married Venetian ladies were kept in ignorance. Dominy also creates a true love for Veronica, one Marco Venier, who (at least in the show) was prevented from marrying young Veronica by his father, who forced him into a political match. Thus, in the musical, Veronica sells herself for sex because: her true love is forced to marry another; poverty allows her no other options; and she is enamored at the prospect of being allowed to visit a library. Somehow, this elite courtesan who was the toast of Venice has been transformed into a musical theatre cross between Fantine and Belle, a Disneyfied hooker with a heart of gold who does it all for an education. And in the act of changing Veronica to make her more relatable, Dominy ends up depriving Veronica of the contradictions that would render her a truly unique musical theatre heroine. Jenny Powers' performance suffers for it. She only really connects to Veronica in her final number, "Confession," a scorching declaration of self in which Veronica refuses to apologize for anything she is. But that sort of characterization shouldn't be the end of the show; it should motivate Powers's entire performancethat would be a Veronica who could truly captivate Venice.
Amanda McBroom's lyrics are inoffensiveexcept when they're offensive. Veronica is encouraged to become a courtesan by her mother, a former courtesan (her mother's profession is known to the audience and, apparently, all of Venice except Veronica). When telling her daughter to take the job, Paola tells her to use "the lips between your hips," a surprisingly crude statement coming from a mother. You'd think a woman who lived her life as one of the elite courtesans would be capable of a delicate metaphor for sex. McBroom's other lyrics (even in the same song) manage a certain level of elegant imagery ("take up the mask and the fan," for example), but this one fits neither the circumstance nor the character. (McBroom also has to be wary of repetition; one use of the "not having a pot to piss in" metaphor is enough for any musical.)
The music, by Michele Brourman, is not entirely sure what it wants to besometimes generic pop ballad, sometimes rock 'n' roll, sprinkled with a hint of rap. (The ballad ending the first act, "Until Tomorrow Comes," seems to be a perfectly acceptable ballad, but as the curtain falls, it is given a final electric guitar power chord, as if to remind us, "Hey! This is rock!") The ballads are the sorts of things you expect people to use for audition pieces, as they show off voices quite well. In the second act, Veronica's friend Beatrice (Megan McGinnis) sings "How Can I Tell Her That," a song which in which nearly every line ends with a big note. The song is then followed by Marco (James Snyder) singing another song in the same pattern. Both sing well, but if the audience is paying more attention to the pattern of the big notes than the song itself, there's something wrong.
Soyon An's costumes and Benoit-Swan Pouffer's choreography are similarly a bit confused about what they should be. All of the courtesans' dresses have a slit straight up the middle, allowing the skirts to be completely hitched up in frontenabling more hip dance moves and, one supposes, easier performance of courtesans' services. Beneath the glittery dresses are glittery stockings and what appear to be little black rock 'n' roll booties. It feels like the Renaissance Era as envisioned by a 1980s rock video. (This slit-skirt rule is broken with Veronica's second-act dress, a purple gauze number on which the skirt comes totally off, conveniently revealing pants for Veronica's implausible involvement in a spontaneous swordfight.) Choreography sometimes impresses with powerful and graceful moves, but then jars with jerking puppet-on-a-string motions, which simply make no sense.
Some of Sheryl Kaller's direction choices are oddcharacters are frequently lounging around Tom Buderwitz's lovely Venetian piazza set, watching the action even when they aren't actually there. (This is particularly strange when Veronica is sitting on the ground when Marco comes running in asking where she is and wondering if she is dead. There would be more dramatic suspense in the moment if we didn't see her right there.) More than that, the show clocks in at just under three hours, way too long for this story to be told.
And yet, for all of that, there is something salvageable here. Veronica's story is interesting, and she can be made more compelling. (Aside to Dominythat bit in the playwright's note which you say you wish had found its way into the play? That would make a much better endingand give Veronica more of a purposethan what is there now.) A few of the songs, particularly a gorgeous trio for three of the women in the second act and a strong fight song for the men which follows it, memorably stand out. There is definitely some quality in here. The creators of this piece need to regroup, determine a unified vision for the tale they're going to tell, and try again.
Dangerous Beauty runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through March 6, 2011. For tickets and information, see www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.
The Pasadena Playhouse -- Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Stephen Eich, Executive Director -- by special arrangement with Susan Dietz and Tara Smith, in association with Sara Katz -- presents Dangerous Beauty. Book and Verse by Jeannine Dominy; Music by Michele Brourman; Lyrics by Amanda McBroom. Based on the book The Honest Courtesan by Margaret F. Rosenthal and The New Regency motion picture Dangerous Beauty, screenplay by Jeannine Dominy. Scenic Design Tom Buderwitz; Costume Design Soyon An; Lighting Design Russell H. Champa; Sound Design Jon Weston; Fight Design Brian Danner; Associate Director Joe Langworth; Associate Producer Ann E. Wareham; Press Representative Patty Onagan; LA Casting Amy Lieberman; NY Casting Howie Cherpakov; Company Manager Angela Sidlow; Production Supervisor Gary Wissmann; Production Stage Manager Joe Witt; Stage Manager Mary Michele Miner; Orchestrations Bruce Coughlin; Vocal Design AnnMarie Milazzo; Additional Arrangements Ben Butler; Music Director Fred Lassen. Choreographed by Benoit-Swan Pouffer; Directed by Sheryl Kaller.