Michael Dale's Martini Talk: Cyrano and Frankenstein

If the theatre chat boards can be trusted, and I always swear by what I read on the theatre chat boards, it seems like The Ritz's Seth Rudetsky has the most talked about bare butt on Broadway since Nicole Kidman's in The Blue Room.  Nice to see a guy who up to now has only been known for his abundant musical talent, endless charitable work and sharp wit finally get noticed for his bod.

And of course the theatre chat boards are also the best sources for keeping count on how many times F. Murray Abraham has stepped out of character to scold the owner of a ringing cell phone during performances of Mauritius.  So far I've noted three reported incidents.  Abraham isn't the first actor to resort to such means, of course – who can forget reports of Richard Griffiths re-starting a scene that was interrupted by ringing during The History Boys – and though there are those who think an actor should just ignore the interruption, such occurrences are often greeted with applause from the rest of the house.  Mayor Bloomberg has never been in favor of the New York City law that forbids the use of cell phones in theatres, saying its unenforceable.  After all, identifying the culprits and removing them from the theatre causes more distraction than the phones themselves.  This is why I think we need a true visionary to take over the matter.  I propose recruiting former Minnesota governor, retired pro wrestler and ex-Navy SEAL Jesse "The Body" Ventura to head up a new police division for the city specializing in Crimes Against Theatre's Sanctity (a/k/a CATS).  Their job will be to train and assign sharp-shooters armed with night vision goggles and paint guns who will be positioned in strategic areas of every theatre (the boxes in the older Broadway houses are perfect), ready to splat anyone who lets a cell phone ring, or even starts texting or talking during the show (Yeah, I'm talking about YOU, "Ugly Betty"), allowing ushers to quickly identify offenders during intermission or after the final curtain.  Sure there's the possibility that some innocent patrons may be unjustifiably targeted, but you know the old saying, "Shoot 'em now and let the house manager sort 'em out."  (Next time... my solution to end the standing ovation epidemic.)

You know you're in trouble when the guy playing Frankenstein's creature finishes his first song and you have to suppress the urge to yell out, "Free Bird!"  Yes, the new Off-Broadway musical version of Mary Shelley's cautionary tale of a scientist determined to discover the secret of creating life, containing just enough over-the-top sexual imagery that you might as well call this one Jung Frankenstein, is another rock musical drama where well trained singer/actors are made to bellow out hollow emotions to over-amplified anthematic melodies.  Only this time there's no elaborate Broadway production providing distraction from the material. Authors Mark Baron (music) and Jeffrey Jackson (book and lyrics) certainly stay faithful to Shelley's original story (following an adaptation by Gary P. Cohen), but the libretto forces the actors to narrate and declare feelings instead of emoting them and there is little texture to the bland and bombastic music. During a climactic song the title character keeps repeating, "I am the modern Prometheus!" as if to jab us in the ribs with the musical's faithfulness to its source.

I'm certainly not going to fault director Bill Fennelly for not discovering the secret of instilling some life into such dull material, but a little less gloom from Thom Weaver's lights, Emily Pepper's costumes and Kevin Judge's set (a staircase and some raised levels) might have helped.  Slides are projected on two screens to provide some background settings but they're situated too far above the main playing area to be of any significance.  I did have serious trouble stifling chuckles when the screens displayed maps of Europe with red lines tracing Dr. Frankenstein's northward pursuit of the creature like they were starring in a Hope and Crosby road picture.

The valiant stars do give praiseworthy performances under trying circumstances.  Though the talented Hunter Foster's scruffy, baby-faced looks read far too young for Victor Frankenstein, the maturity and power of his vocals are impressive, despite a score that gives him little opportunity to do more than fiercely belt.  The bare-chested Steve Blanchard, who, as the creature, does a lot of pounding on his well sculpted pecs, sings with rock star authority while the lovely voiced soprano Christiane Noll, as Victor's wife, Elizabeth, is blessed with the show's quieter moments, though the lyrics don't offer much for her superior phrasing skills to color.

Though I haven't seen it yet, I would think Hunter Foster might somewhere along the line wind up as a replacement Dr. Frankenstein in the Mel Brooks musical version of the story.  That is, once his sister is no longer playing the character's love interest.  It's too bad Adele Astaire retired from show business before she and Fred starred in a few more brother/sister musicals that might be revived by these talented siblings.

There is so much to relish and enjoy in director David Leveaux's production of  Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac that minor annoyances, like the performances of two of its billed stars, do little to lessen the pleasure.  Just so long as the first billed star is on stage the nearly three hour long production glides by with finesse, grand humor and warming pathos.

The best looking character actor in town, Kevin Kline, at 60 years of age, gives a performance of such swaggering athleticism and grace that actors less than half his age would be envious. Add to that the seasoned eloquence with which he delivers Anthony Burgess' lively adaptation/translation, an interpretation which is both resoundingly funny in pomposity and wit while never losing grasp of the character's nobility and romantic sorrows and you have a perfectly cast actor working at the height of his craft.

Kline, of course, plays the title role of the large-nosed swordsman and poet who fears that his appearance is the reason he cannot win the heart of his beautiful cousin Roxane, who is hooked on the pretty but inarticulate soldier, Christian.  Smitten with Roxane himself, Christian accepts help in wooing her in the famous balcony scene, where the poet feeds him the words that capture her love.  When the two men are sent to war, Cyrano risks death every day and contumes to set her heart ablaze with daily letters of Christian's devotion from the front lines.

Jennifer Garner has the requisite loveliness for Roxane, but her dexterity with the language of the play is so awkward and actorly, giving the character a lot of girlishness but little soul, that it makes you wonder what Cyrano sees in her.  Daniel Sunjata, as Christain, is equally attractive but speaks in flat, expressionless tones that never suggest a lover struggling with the ability to express his passion. He gets some good laughs as Kline's foil but his manner is too contemporary American to fit in with the production that surrounds him.

There are good supporting turns, especially from the always interesting Euan Morton as the drunken poet Cyrano defends against 100 swordsmen and by Carman Lacivita as the arrogant duelist who challenges Cyrano via Mark Deklin's entertaining fight choreography.

The production is visual striking, with Tom Pye's versatile set lit brilliantly by Don Holder.  With the addition of Gregory Gale's tastefully lavish period costumes it's like the play is being performed on one of Rembrandt's canvases.  A perfect frame for the magnificent brush strokes of Mr. Kline.

Michael Dale's Martini Talk appears every Monday and Thursday on BroadwayWorld.com

Photos by Carol Rosegg:  Top: Hunter Foster and Steve Blanchard in Frankenstein; Bottom:  Kevin Kline in Cyrano de Bergerac

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