'Love' changes a few things Theater: Strategic tweaking of music and set adds to the promise of 'Triumph of Love' at Center Stage.

December 19, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

At each performance of Center Stage's world-premiere musical, "Triumph of Love," the program has included an insert updating the song list and informing theatergoers that the "creative team continues to make changes."

The decision on whether the show will proceed to Broadway is expected to be made after it opens at the Yale Repertory Theatre next month.

But the continuing work suggests efforts are heading in the direction of Broadway. And a return visit during the show's final week in Baltimore revealed a number of improvements to a production that already gleamed with charm in previews more than three weeks ago.

To reiterate the essentials, "Triumph of Love" is a musical based on Marivaux's 18th-century French comedy about a princess who falls in love at first sight with a young man named Agis, who has been raised by his reclusive philosopher aunt and uncle to shun the emotions of the heart in favor of the life of the mind.

The most substantial change is a new duet, "To Be Like You," which composer Jeffrey Stock and lyricist Susan Birkenhead have written for the first scene between the princess and the philosopher uncle, Hermocrates.

The song replaces a number called "The Mysteries of Criticism," which tried to establish intellectual similarities between the princess and Hermocrates. The new song, on the other hand, stresses their emotional differences -- a choice more appropriate to the plot, since to get to her beloved Agis, the princess must first seduce his aunt and uncle, a passionless pair who are her polar opposites.

The scene also displays a significant departure in the approach Susan Egan's princess uses with Robert LuPone's Hermocrates. Instead of addressing him in her regular voice, Egan now adopts a little, breathy voice that comes across as a combination of a helpless -- but alluring -- female and fawning young acolyte. Besides the inherent humor of this, it contrasts effectively with the lower register she uses when, disguised as a man, she attempts to win over the character of the aunt (Mary Beth Peil).

Though there are no other major song changes, the servants' opening number, "Us," has received much-needed tightening and is, as a result, a properly perky introduction to the broadly comic trio of clowns played by Kenny Raskin, Daniel Marcus and Denny Dillon.

Among the small but noticeable improvements in Michael Mayer's light-spirited direction and Doug Varone's choreography are that Christopher Sieber's Agis no longer sings a solo while posed statically on a pedestal, and when he dances for joy after he and the princess acknowledge their love, his little dance isn't quite as peculiar -- though it's still not especially funny. All in all, however, the character seems less stiff, a move in the right direction if Agis is to seem truly worthy of the love of Egan's enchanting and dynamic princess.

James Magruder's libretto also has undergone some tweaking, which includes giving Dillon's maidservant character some additional 1990s-style wisecracks that reinforce the postmodern approach to this 18th-century French comedy set in ancient Greece.

Visually, the show has gained a series of miniature topiary trees that add to the humor of Heidi Landesman's formal garden set. And, the princess now enters in full dress -- a suitable fairy-tale look by costume designer Catherine Zuber -- instead of her previous confusing state of partial undress. Similarly, her maid no longer wears a blindfold, a prop that left the audience almost as much in the dark as the character.

The biggest forthcoming change, according to producer Margo Lion, who owns the rights to the show, will be a new opening song.

Further attention should also be paid to ensuring that the aliases the princess and her maid adopt remain crystal clear. Although Magruder deserves praise for simplifying Marivaux's complex plot, it's still too easy to find yourself wondering: Who is the princess this time? A guy named Phocion? A gal named Aspasie? Or is it Cecile? And who knows her by which name?

Finally, as much of a musical delight as "Triumph" is, in Broadway terms it is a small-scale one. If the show does make the big move, it is essential that it move to an intimate theater. Otherwise, it could seem as lost and out of place as a beautifully detailed piece of Limoges porcelain in a massive amusement park.

'Triumph of Love'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday, matinee at 2 p.m. Saturday; through Saturday

Tickets: $10-$38

Call: (410) 481-6500

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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