It’s 1807 and the mythic kingdom of Slavonia is under siege: In various parts of the Blue Forest, Napoleon is gearing up for an easy annexation, the pope is preparing to loosen the prince and his inheritance from the grip of a power-mad queen, and an illegitimate cousin is leading a band of gypsies on a mission to usurp the crown — that is, if any of them can find the way out of the woods. No wonder the prince is petrified.
“The Petrified Prince” is an audacious merger of Broadway and Off Broadway creative talent (director Hal Prince, composer/lyricist Michael John LaChiusa) and producing talent (Garth Drabinsky, George C. Wolfe). As LaChiusa is something of a next-generation Stephen Sondheim — writing lyrics that are witty and literate, and music that moves with beguiling ease from nonmelodic phrases to ripe musical theater ballads and anthems — one might even call this show “Out of the Woods,” a title that would work on at least two levels.
Unfortunately, the show’s also a campy mess, an over-the-top, over-produced (when was the last time you saw a line producer credit in a playbill?) exercise in overkill that nevertheless manages to be a frequently enjoyable tour de force. With its catatonic hero, its glorious, gilded comic-book-colored toy-theater set, its sex-bad/love-good moral, “Prince” is a little bit of a lot of familiar, if disparate, things, from “Tommy” to “Hamlet,””A Little Night Music” to “The Pirates of Penzance.”
The story, adapted by Edward Gallardo from an unproduced Ingmar Bergman screenplay, concerns young Prince Samson (Alexander Gaberman), rendered mute and paralyzed apparently in the wake of his father’s death during lovemaking with Queen Katarina (Candy Buckley), a scene played out by Punch & Judy shadow puppets. Recognizing that her only hope of holding on to power is by ensuring Samson’s ascension to the throne, Katarina takes him to the Vienna whorehouse she came from, in search of a girl who might succeed where all the royal doctors have failed. And he does
indeed fall in love, though it is the infant child of the sweet Elise (Daisy Prince, the director’s daughter) who ultimately releases him.
The show opens in the throne room with the chorus urging Samson to “Move”–“You have nothing more to fear,”– a theme that seems to consciously parallel “Move On” from Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” Once King Maximillian (Mal Z. Lawrence) has been dispatched, Katarina belts out “There Are Happy Endings,” soon followed by the mock-Brechtian “Easy Life”–“It’s hard to have a conscience,” she urges Samson, “when you have no bread.”
One side plot involves Cardinal Pointy (Timothy Jerome), who is in love with Pius VII (Ralph Byers): “Some work to enlarge Christianity’s scope,” he sings, “but I fell in love with the pope,”– highlighting the show’s camp roots (the pope’s mother is ashamed of him for not giving hergrandchildren) and suggesting, as well, that there may also be other, unspoken reasons for Samson’s paralysis.
The production, which cost over $ 1.1 million and was substantially underwritten by Prince’s Canadian sugar daddy, Garth Drabinsky, is a stunner, from James Youmans’ unending, color-saturated sets on a comically tiny revolve — now a campsite in Bohemia, now a Vienna brothel, now the palace in Slavonia — to Howell Binkley’s equally intense and varied lighting and Judith Dolan’s gorgeous costumes.
Most of the performances are priceless, too, though Buckley, a seasoned veteran of the nonprofit theater, has been pushed to strive for broad comedy and instead comes across as harsh and chilly.
One has to believe that if Drabinsky and John Flaxman (who owns the rights to the work) hadany confidence in a commercial life for “The Petrified Prince,” it would have been developed by Drabinsky’s Live Entertainment, the Canadian source of Prince’s productions of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Show Boat.”
And the problem of being over-produced (will Prince ever escape that epithet?) ultimately pales before the larger issue of taste. After demonstrating so powerfully with “Show Boat” that he can avoid kitsch when he wants to, Prince serves up in “The Petrified Prince” so many gooey frills that in the end, the show it most recalls is his staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera.” Like the opera parodies that stop that show dead in its tracks, “The Petrified Prince” is stunted by a director unable to resist showing off, everyone else be damned.