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Theatre Hopkins’ Lively Recreation of Dell’Arte: The Glorious Ones

The Glorious Ones (2007), a musical about and somewhat in the style of the Commedia dell'arte, is about as uneven and inconsistent as the Renaissance performance form it evokes. Parts of it are bawdy and filled with slapstick, parts aspire to make serious observations about man's fate and art, and are designed to tug at the heartstrings. The staging it is receiving at Theatre Hopkins is quite impressive, and reconciles these elements about as well as can be done.

We are all familiar with some of the iconography of the Commedia dell'arte, whether we know it or not. Theater groups from time immemorial have blazoned their programs with pictures of a pantalooned man wearing a beaked mask and playing a mandolin. We also all know the stock character of Harlequin, an anglicized Arlecchino. Yet for most of us the acquaintance stops about there. There is no continuing dell'arte performance tradition, although parts of it have been absorbed in grand opera and pantomime. It seems, though, that in general it was a lowbrow kind of entertainment, reliant on highly stylizEd Mannerisms to express emotions, filled with music and dance, and not averse to using whatever worked (including introducing female thespians to Europe) to get the crowds laughing and cheering.

There's nothing profound about such material. So in a production that starts from recreating the look and feel of it, to attempt anything even fleetingly profound, the creators must go backstage, and they do. The Glorious Ones follows one actual historical troupe, I Gelosi, founded by one Flaminio Scala, from its formation around 1569 to Scala's death, and includes the historically accurate circumstance of the troupe having been joined by Francesco Andreini and by Isabella Canali, the actress who eventually became Andreini's wife, as well as a famous playwright.

If one were to believe the plot, Scala was a proponent of the improvisatory style, while Francesco and Isabella were trying to drag the reluctant troupe into a world of scripted entertainment (as television executives now call it). The historicity of this conflict is, I gather, open to question. But as a springboard for the drama of passing generations, of the efforts of aging artists to create a legacy so they will be remembered after they die, it works passably. Yet in tone this dramatic element, mostly confined to Act II, clashes somewhat with the lighter note struck by Act I.

The music is by Stephen Flaherty, the book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the talents behind Seussical and Ragtime. As well-seasoned pros, they can turn out touching if not overly memorable songs. I particularly was struck by "I Was Here," Flaminio's cry of longing for immortality, and a song sung mostly by his wife Columbina "My Body Wasn't Why," her thoughtful take on love and aging. They can sell Act II to us. And it all sort of fits together with Act I, just not brilliantly. It must also be said that the melodramatic ending is a bit over the top too.

The able cast does fine. Edward J. Peters makes a majestic Scala, with a big voice and a big frame to go with it; he dominates each scene he occupies. Amy Pierson is in beautiful voice as the avatar of the literate new generation coming to sweep Scala away. And Lauren Spencer-Harris, though not technically a little person, evokes the dwarf Armanda, the keeper of Scala's artistic flame, with pep and energy. Columbina, Scala's wife who is "of a certain age" and having to deal with it, is probably the most dramatically challenging role, ranging from bawdry to pathos; Shannon Wollman touches all its bases well. And considering that 90% of this production is sung, it bears mention that I never heard a fluffed note anywhere within the cast - a compliment denied by one reviewer to the original (Lincoln Center) cast album.

The music did, however, come across as thin in places. The pit orchestra, reduced from the original orchestration, consisted only of one overworked pianist and drummer. Timbre and texture had to suffer, as a comparison with the original cast album reveals. Perhaps the tradeoff was in the areas of scene, costumes and lighting, all of which at least looked as if they had been done full-strength.

Theater buffs sometimes speak of this musical as a curiosity among the greater successes of Flaherty and Ahrens. It is more than that. In reintroducing us to a bygone kind of theater, in presenting the strong material of Act II, they have presented something we should see. Though it enjoyed some critical esteem during its four-month New York run, The Glorious Ones is not often presented so far. That is too bad. Perhaps this production will inspire others.


The Glorious Ones, June 11-July 4, 2010. Theatre Hopkins, The Swirnow Theater at the Mattin Arts Center, The Johns Hopkins University, Homewood Campus, 33rd Street at North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21218. Tickets $20. (410) 516-7159. . Some vulgarity and suggested simulated sex.


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