'Triumph' of heart, mind and music Review: Affairs, aliases and irreverence spice up ancient Sparta in a smartly done musical at Center Stage.

November 28, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Triumph of Love," a musical set in a formal garden, blossoms with tuneful music, wit and stylish charm. This Center Stage world premiere is the most sheerly delightful musical bauble that theater has produced since "She Loves Me," more than a decade ago.

If the title sounds familiar, that's because Center Stage produced the non-musical version of this 18th-century French comedy by Marivaux in 1993. That version, translated by the theater's resident dramaturg, James Magruder, was pleasant enough. But its plot -- involving a trio of love affairs and a slew of aliases -- seemed too complicated for a musical.

However, with the aid of lyricist Susan Birkenhead, whose clever lyrics advance the plot and develop character; composer Jeffrey Stock, whose repeated motifs further develop character; and director Michael Mayer, Magruder has streamlined the script and, without sacrificing the overriding theme of heart vs. mind, come up with a show that is more accessible and less academic than its predecessor.

The plot is mostly the same, although a few pieces of essential information are withheld until later in the action to increase their effect.

Princess Leonide has fallen in love at first sight with a young man named Agis. All she knows about him is that he's been raised in seclusion by his philosopher uncle and aunt, a pair of prudes she describes as intellectual hermits. As it turns out, Agis' reclusive upbringing is not the only obstacle to romance.

To ingratiate herself into the philosopher's household, the gender-bending princess disguises herself as a male student seeking his tutelage. When that fails, she schemes to seduce both the philosopher and his spinster sister.

The burden of the show lies with the actress playing the princess. Susan Egan, the original Belle in "Beauty and the Beast" on Broadway, imbues the role with unshakable determination and perpetual pep, and has the vocal ability to differentiate between the princess' female romantic yearnings and the sultry male seductiveness required to woo Agis' stony aunt.

The princess' signature romantic solo, "Anything," and her tango with the aunt, "You May Call Me Phocion," are typical of composer Stock's diverse palette, which pays homage to American musical theater masters including Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Frederick Loewe and Stephen Sondheim. When Stock's hummable melodies are paired with Birkenhead's lyrics, which combine Sondheim-style sophistication with Lorenz Hart-style irreverence, the music transforms what might have been merely a classic play with songs into a fully integrated book musical.

Marivaux based his characters on the stock types of commedia dell'arte, and these contribute significantly to the show's humor, particularly the clownish servants. Lean Kenny Raskin and well-padded Daniel Marcus play the philosopher's valet and gardener as earthy vaudevillians. Though the first-act number in which they join forces with the princess' maid could be shortened, they are at their baggy-pants best in their 11th-hour lament, "Henchmen are Forgotten."

As the maid, Denny Dillon is a sassy sidekick who revels in her own street smarts and the role's self-consciously anachronistic touches. (However, having her enter blindfolded -- and, together with the princess, in a state of partial undress -- creates more confusion than comedy, especially since there's also a chunk of exposition to impart.)

As the uptight aunt and uncle who undergo major personality changes, Mary Beth Peil and Robert LuPone are so appropriately stiff and formal, they truly look as if a smile -- or worse, a kiss -- would shatter their faces.

Christopher Sieber's boyish Agis, however, is more the object of the princess' affections than a character in his own right. A leading man who's a cipher is a decided problem, as is the awkward mechanical dance he does when he and the princess finally acknowledge their mutual love.

Though the action takes place in ancient Sparta, both the silhouettes of designer Catherine Zuber's costumes and designer Heidi Landesman's labyrinth garden set belong primarily to the 18th century. A highly ordered playground for the foolishly intellectual, this garden is graduate school for the brain, but kindergarten for the emotions.

Mirroring Marivaux, the point of the musical is that pitting reason vs. romance is futile. Each needs the other. But a more up-to-date reference comes through as well. When the princess and Agis finally get together, there's no question who will wield the power in this union -- perhaps not unlike the balance of power in that labyrinth known as the Clinton White House.

"Triumph of Love" succeeds on several levels, and, if it's not yet totally triumphant, it comes close. The show may be too much of a chamber musical for Broadway, but it's a beautiful fit at Center Stage. The only shame is that its subsequent engagement at the Yale Repertory Theatre prohibits holding it over for the holidays.

'Triumph of Love'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays (except tonight); 7: 30 p.m. Sundays; matinees 2 p.m. Sundays, most Saturdays, and 1 p.m. Dec. 18; through Dec. 21

Tickets: $10-$38

Call: (410) 481-6500

Pub Date: 11/28/96

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