'Love' triumphs but maybe tries too hard to please Review: The curtain and energy rise for Broadway debut, but the revved-up 'Triumph of Love' makes for colder ride.

October 24, 1997|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- Even before the curtain rises, it's obvious that Broadway audiences won't be seeing the same "Triumph of Love" enjoyed by Baltimore at Center Stage last year.

For one thing, the curtain itself is an addition. It's hilariously huge, spilling onto the stage floor and threatening to spill into the laps of front-row patrons. Like the complex 18th-century Marivaux comedy upon which this musical is based, the curtain gives you a lot of material to contemplate.

Moving uptown in more ways than just the transfer from Baltimore to the Big Apple, this glitzier "Triumph" is a comfortable fit in the Royale Theatre, whose plush red upholstery and gilded decor make the French comedy seem at home.

Considering the marquee value of new cast members Betty Buckley and F. Murray Abraham, revisions to the score and creative tinkering on the road from Center Stage to the Yale Repertory Theatre and now to the Royale, "Triumph of Love" should be a beautifully smooth show.

It is. In fact, it's delightful enough to qualify as a near-triumph. But a funny thing happened on the way to its New York forum. This revved-up production is so aggressively eager to please that the comic energy threatens to overwhelm the story's more tender emotions. There's enough genuine warmth to ensure love will conquer all by the end, but it goes down to the wire.

If a musical with so many ridiculous romantic complications benefits from a nervous edge and some self-spoofing, it also needs sufficient confidence in its own strength to pause occasionally for philosophical musings and amorous laments. The latter elements are more rushed here than they were in Baltimore. All this set's trap doors and hydraulic lifts make it hard for anybody to stand still and ruminate for very long.

Providing casting continuity from Baltimore are the two romantic leads: Susan Egan as Princess Leonide and Christopher Sieber as Agis. Leonide has sneaked into a formal garden in ancient Sparta, intent on wooing Agis. There are overwhelming difficulties with this plan. Agis is an exiled prince whose crown has been claimed by Leonide's family. He vows to kill Leonide, and, moreover, has been raised by his aunt and uncle to believe all women are to be avoided.

What to do? Leonide disguises herself as a man, then assumes additional gender-switching identities to separately court Agis, his aunt and uncle. Soon, she's immersed in such involved scheming that you'll never again complain about your own love life being complicated.

A svelte dynamo, Egan is equally terrific as female and male characters. Nominated for a Tony Award for her performance as Belle in "Beauty and the Beast," she seems assured of copping another nomination for her Leonide. When she sings fervently of her love for Agis in "Anything," it's clear that this princess will stop at nothing to get her man.

Agis is a problematic catch. An orphan, he's being raised by his philosopher uncle, Hermocrates (Abraham), and Hermocrates' no less philosophical sister, Hesione (Buckley). Committed to an intellectual, rational life, this dour family spends much of its time in a garden whose sterile geometry, by scenic designer Heidi Ettinger, is so severe it's funny.

Leonide's obsession must be accepted as a given, because other than his good looks the rather dimwitted Agis seems like a hopelessly bad prospect. What's she see in this guy?

Also making Agis a weak link is Sieber's performance. Although he's physically well cast and has improved since the Center Stage run, he still suffers from vocal strain in some musical

numbers.

Among newcomers to the cast, Buckley and Abraham are excellent as Agis' aunt and uncle. Wearing a formidable blue dress that, like all of Catherine Zuber's costumes, is cleverly exaggerated, Buckley's Hesione is so cold you almost expect the garden to freeze when she enters it. Her diva-like stage presence (Buckley had a stint as Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard") is deployed to intimidating advantage, and her commanding voice is especially effective in the number "Serenity."

As Hesione's philosopher brother Hermocrates, Broadway veteran Abraham gamely makes his singing debut. He has total control when he speaks or moves, but he won't have a future in grand opera. He speaks his numbers more often than he sings them, though his crusty delivery is appropriate for Hermocrates. In duets, however, Buckley's enormous voice nearly throws him out of the garden.

In supporting roles, Nancy Opel is spunky as Leonide's maid, Corine; Roger Bart is limber and laugh-inducing as a slender valet named Harlequin; and Kevin Chamberlin is a fat and funny spokesman for the common man as the gardener, Dimas. Harlequin and Dimas have a wonderful comic number in the vaudeville-evocative song "Henchmen Are Forgotten."

Michael Mayer, who also directed the Center Stage production, brings much skill if a tad too much slapstick to the proceedings. Composer Jeffrey Stock and lyricist Susan Birkenhead have considerably revised the score. The result is a more consistent sound that seamlessly melds light classical music and Broadway belting.

The motivating force behind the show is Center Stage's resident dramaturge, James Magruder, who wrote the musical's book. Magruder's translation of Marivaux's 1732 play was produced at Center Stage in 1993. He then made major cuts in the text as he helped fashion the musical adaptation that wowed Baltimore last year and now deserves applause in Manhattan.

'Triumph of Love'

Where: Royale Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $75 and $65 for all performances except Wednesday matinees, which are $65 and $45

Call: 800-432-7250

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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