November 28, 2007

The Ups and Downs of "The Glorious Ones"

There are all sorts of reasons we choose to see a particular show. Sometimes it's because of the actors, writers or director involved. Or maybe we're drawn by rave reviews. Or because a friend said it was something that shouldn't be missed. Or, as in my case with The Glorious Ones, because it reminds us of something in our own lives.

The Glorious Ones, the new musical now playing in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, tells the story of a troupe of 16th century Italian actors who helped to create commedia dell'arte, the improvisational form of theater that took a comic view of subjects ranging from jealousy and chivalry to love and the fear of death. I obviously wasn't around then but during my sophomore year in college a group of us started our own commedia troupe. We divided its stock roles—the sexy maid, the innocent maiden, the crotchety old man, the swaggering hero, the clever jester—among us and performed skits for our fellow students, at schools and children’s fairs, wherever they would have us. The following summer, a small group got a tiny grant and took the show around to poor neighborhoods in New York. A scholarship kid, I needed to make more money than the grant could pay so I dropped out but I look back at my commedia days as some of the happiest I spent in school. And the moment I heard about The Glorious Ones, I looked forward to the chance to experience the pleasures I'd enjoyed back then. And when I found myself unexpectedly free one night, I went to see it.

Nothing, of course, could have lived up to the memories of my youth. But I think I would have been disappointed anyway. The Glorious Ones, based on the novel by Francine Prose, isn't a bad show. There are several affecting songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the team that created Ragtime and Once on This Island, among many other shows. The cast, led by the superb Marc Kudisch as the leader of the troupe, is excellent; Julyana Soelistyo was particularly winning as the runt of the group. Graciela Daniele’s direction is lively, Mara Blumefeld’s costumes are eye-catching and Dan Ostling’s set is fittingly simple. But even with all of this going for it (which I grant is quite a bit; click here to see some video clips of the show) The Glorious Ones never achieves the wonderfully manic energy of commedia for me and Ahrens' book fails to make the narrative dramatic, in any sense of the word.

But The Glorious Ones does strive to pay tribute to the transformative power of art and to the particular exhilaration that actors draw from their art form. And even though I attended a performance in the middle of the show’s 12-week run that is scheduled to end on Jan. 6, the audience was still peppered with theater folk: I bumped into a Broadway house manager I know, sat next to a well-known publicist and in front of two men discussing their upcoming meeting with the director David Grindley. The show obviously holds some special meaning for all of them but it seems unlikely to hit with the general public. Even though Lincoln Center has a subscription audience, there were many empty seats at my performance.

I will always love commedia. And I have always loved backstage musicals, even if the stage is just a wooden plank in a 16th century Italian town square. I also have real respect for the people involved in this show and for the ambitious task they set themselves. But, in the end, I found myself wishing that they could take the show back and do it over because there’s a lot of good here and maybe, with some additional tweaking, it could be a truly glorious show.

1 comment:

Armil@broadway shows new said...

It is a great thing to know that The Glorious Ones does strive to pay tribute to the transformative power of art and to the particular exhilaration that actors draw from their art form.

Thanks by the way!