November 3, 2007

A "Cyrano" With Too Little Panache

My mother never thought of herself as a romantic but she couldn't get enough of stories about unrequited love. The tale of Cyrano de Bergerac, the long-nosed French boulevardier who loves his cousin Roxane but, believing himself too ugly to win her heart, woos her for another man, may have been my mother's favorite and my sister Joanne and I grew up hearing her sing its praises. Our mom was far from the only one who fell in love with Cyrano. The French playwright Edmond Rostand debuted his fictionalized portrayal of a real-life 17th century soldier and writer in 1897. Some historians speculate that the real Cyrano may have been gay but Rostand's heterosexual love triangle was an immediate hit. Within a year, a production opened on Broadway.

Over the 110 years since, there have been Cyrano ballets and operas (including one that premiered at the Michigan Opera Theatre just three weeks ago), movies (most notably JosĂ© Ferrer's Oscar winning portrayal in 1950), movie adaptations (among them, Steve Martin’s "Roxanne"), a samurai version ("Life of an Expert Swordsman"), a Bollywood version ("Padosan"), at least three Broadway musicals (none of which worked, not even one by Victor Herbert) and 12 play revivals, including the latest which opened this past week starring Kevin Kline as Cyrano, Jennifer Garner, who made her name as the butt-kicking spy on the ABC series "Alias", as Roxane, and Daniel Sunjata as Christian, the good-looking lunkhead who makes up the third in their love triangle.

Kevin Kline seems a natural for the role of the swashbuckling, poetry-spouting Cyrano who introduced the word panache into the English vocabulary. Kline is also my sister's favorite actor and so on her birthday Joanne and I went to see the new Cyrano de Bergerac which is playing a limited run through Dec. 21 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Kline, widely acknowledged as America's leading classical actor, was fine. And Garner, making her Broadway stage debut, was OK too. But both of them, along with director David Leveaux’s entire production—including a cavernous, barn-like set and strangely dim lighting—struck me as overly subdued. When you've come out to cheer on a grand old warhorse, you don't really want to see someone just trot it around the stage, you want them to get on and ride the hell out of it. And maybe that's unfair. Maybe, particularly when the works are so old and have been done so many times, both actors and audiences need to be open to new ways of presenting them.

There are two classics playing on Broadway right now and both have attempted to go off in new directions. In Pygmalion, Jefferson Mays plays Henry Higgins as a petulant man child instead of the crusty old coot that Rex Harrison, Peter O'Toole and others made of him. And instead of walking out of the theater thinking that there might be an after-the-curtain-falls romance between Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, I thought there was probably more of a chance of something blooming between Higgins and his sidekick Colonel Pickering. Pygmalion's playwright George Bernard Shaw famously disliked any suggestions that Higgins and Eliza would come together and so he might have been happy with the Roundabout's current production but the critics weren't crazy about the different interpretation.

Now, Kline has rejected the flamboyant grandiloquence that actors like Ferrer, Walter Hampden (who did three Broadway productions in the ‘20s and ‘30s), Ralph Richardson and Derek Jacobi brought to Cyrano; instead, Kline’s Cyrano is low-key, introspective and almost aloof. Garner, making her Broadway stage debut, puts a different spin on Roxane too, portraying her with the same kind of pluckines that made her "Alias" character Sydney Bristow such a you-go-girl icon; there's even a scene where her Roxane engages in a little swordplay of her own, which the audience at the performance we attended loved.

Some critics, most notably the New York Times' Ben Brantley, also seem to love this production. But I can't help it, I wanted a little more old-fashioned romance and well, a lot more panache.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Dear Jan - Great reading your take, especially since you grew up with this tale. It was all new to me when I finally saw it (sure, I knew the basic plot points, but I have no real history with it), and I rather enjoyed it.

Looks like we may differ on Ms. Garner's performance, but that's why I love reading your blog!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for writing, Steve. I think one of the great things about art is that it is a conversation between the artists and the audience, complete with all the baggage that both sides bring to it. And I confess I came to this one with a satchel full of longing for old-fashioned, larger-than-life swashbuckling. But I don't think that you and I are so far apart on Garner's performance. To my surprise, though, John Lahr in the New Yorker seems quite taken with her.

MADmusic&movielover said...

Cyrano De bergerac is a great play..Among the greatest ever... Little wonder then that it is so influential.. It was even among Ayn Rand's favorites !

Btw, the bollywood version of cyrano de bergerac is not Padosan but Saajan (1991).