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Theatre in Review: Cyrano (The New Group/Daryl Roth Theatre)

A musical Cyrano de Bergerac? Many have tried, none have succeeded. By my count, the current attraction at the Daryl Roth is the eighth attempt at musicalizing Edmond Rostand's fabulous war horse -- and that doesn't include two operas, neither of which ever made it into the standard repertory. (Admittedly, the list includes Cyranose de Bric-a-Brac, a Weber and Fields travesty produced in 1898, but still.) The attempts include a 1973 flop with Christopher Plummer in the title role and a libretto by Anthony Burgess, and an inexplicable 1993 Dutch production that signaled the last gasp of the pop opera. (The latter did offer the deathless lyric "Cyrano is lots of fun/Lots of fun for every nun," which may help explain why you won't be seeing it at Encores any time soon.) The most recent pass, with a score by Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse, went to Tokyo in 2006, never to return.

The problem, as the critic Ken Mandelbaum once pointed out, is that Cyrano de Bergerac -- its action rich with melodrama, its dialogue ripe with rodomontade -- is practically a musical already. It's an evening of grand gestures -- drawn swords, romantic deceptions, midnight wooings, and battle scenes -- wrapped in yards and yards of poetry that is, alternately, wickedly witty, tormented with yearning, and laden with rue. Adding a floridly romantic score, as so many have tried to do, not only gilds the lily, it kills it.

Which is why this new version is so intriguing: The people behind it have used the subtractive method, stripping away the original's plush appointments to create the modernist, minimalist Cyrano. The basic situation is there: Cyrano loves Roxanne who loves Christian, but the latter needs Cyrano's way with words to win the lady. The plan, I gather, is to reframe that core for 2019 audiences who might not have much appetite for dueling witticisms and moon-drunk lyricism. If it doesn't work -- if the result is more morose than magical -- it's not for lack of an original approach.

The difficulty, I think, is that the surgeon's knife has been allowed to cut too deeply. The first thing to go -- amazingly -- is the nose. Cyrano's enormous proboscis, The Thing That Must Not Be Named -- unless, of course, he indulges in his own lengthy satiric tribute to it -- has been downplayed to the point of nonexistence. It rates a couple of mentions early on but is generally so overlooked that it's impossible to believe it has played a central role in the formation of his character. Most crucially, Cyrano's magnificent speech, in which he applies a library's worth of similes and metaphors to his oversize nasal organ, has been dropped -- along with the character's remarkable self-mocking sense of humor. The effect is to diminish Cyrano as a character, turning him into a moper, convinced on little or no evidence that Roxanne could never love him. You could say that Erica Schmidt, author of the musical's book, has cut off his nose to spite his face.

Indeed, as part of the minimization plan, Peter Dinklage, the Cyrano of the occasion, does away with one of the magnificently florid noses sported by his many predecessors in the role. With barely a mention of it in the text and no visible evidence onstage, it soon vanishes from one's mind altogether, taking with it one of the character's principal motivations. One is left wondering what exactly Cyrano's problem is. I suppose, if anyone wanted to go there, the actor's dwarfism could have been used as a plausible substitute -- and the book does offer a passing joke about Christian's comparatively great height. But such a plan never materializes and, anyway, it might not be believable: Even with his hair mussed in a permanent bedhead tangle and a beard seemingly stolen from a box of Smith Brothers cough drops, Dinklage is really rather presentable. With versifying banished, wit curtailed, and a protagonist whose affliction has been shifted to some kind of internal darkness -- he often seems to be clinically depressed, delivering his downbeat songs in a growl reminiscent of Leonard Cohen -- this is a Cyrano for the Zoloft era.

There are other losses, as well. Roxanne, a woman for whom wordplay is the key to romance, is rendered surprisingly colorlessly, for reasons that have less to do with the performance of Jasmine Cephas Jones than the confines of the reimagined role. In the original, Roxanne is slyly adept at fending off the advances of the aristocratic De Guiche, who wants to marry her off to a fool, then retain her as his mistress. Here, she is under pressure to marry him for his money, a much more Puritan dilemma. And Schmidt has removed one of the play's most thrilling scenes, in which Roxanne and Ragueneau, the poet/baker, storm the battlefield, bearing food for the starving Cyrano, Christian, and their cohort. Without such flourishes, Roxanne is reduced to a straightforward musical theatre love interest, and not a very exciting one, at that.

Even more strangely, the action now takes place in some kind of temporal and spatial void. The set, by Christine Jones and Amy Rubin, uses sliding panels to graceful effect, but it remains a detail-free box; you could just as easily stage The Crucible, or something by Samuel Beckett, on it. Tom Broecker's costumes borrow the silhouettes and styles of several eras, further muddying the waters; given the look of the soldiers' uniforms and a chorus that sings "We are Southern sons and daughters, Southern metal in our hands," I began to fantasize that the entire enterprise had been transposed to the Civil War era. The score -- music by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner, lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser -- is seamlessly woven into the book, but the words are pedestrian and the melodies often consist of a single idea relentlessly repeated until lurching to a full stop. These are songs for ironic, moodily romantic hipsters, not seventeenth-century Parisians seduced by love and literature and swept away on currents of war.

Schmidt's staging is certainly efficient, aided by the choreography of Jeff and Rick Kuperman, who find elegance in such everyday tasks as bakers at work. Jeff Croiter's lighting is flat-out gorgeous throughout, especially the angular arrangement of beams in the battle scene and the autumnal amber wash for the climax, set in the convent to which Roxanne has retreated. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design is marvelously transparent. Among the supporting cast, Blake Jenner is an attractive, well-sung Christian and Josh A. Dawson is solid as Le Bret, Cyrano's longtime friend and aide-de-camp. The big-voiced Grace McLean, who dresses up any occasion, is largely wasted in the dual roles of Roxanne's duenna and her convent confidante. Ritchie Coster's mannered, unusually self-loathing De Guiche seems to come from another, grander production.

Still, if this Cyrano is filled with mistakes, they are not the mistakes of past adapters. Then again, one wonders what drew everyone to this property, which has been built around a star who is temperamentally unsuited to playing the title role as Rostand conceived it. It's a paradox: Dinklage is the main draw here, and he confidently holds the stage, but his Cyrano, like the surrounding show, is a portrait rendered in grayscale. In trimming Cyrano de Bergerac down to its core, they're thrown away the core. --David Barbour

(15 November 2019)

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