If making a musical out of Marivaux’s 1732 comedy “Triumph of Love” initially seems like an academic idea mainly of interest to Francophiles, the actual result is a delightful musical comedy with no shortage of funny lines and serious commercial potential. Although the show may not quite qualify as a complete theatrical triumph, its “Candida”-like cleverness ensures it will make a name for itself at co-producing Center Stage, the Yale Repertory Theater and beyond.
Taking his own translation of Marivaux’s play, which was produced at Center Stage in 1993, book writer James Magruder has engineered its musical adaptation
by extensively cutting a text that would otherwise have been too long and involved. Only a purist will object to the streamlining of a play that goes overboard with plot complications.
Besides Magruder’s astute editorial pruning, the creative smarts behind this transformation include composer Jeffrey Stock, whose score is an agreeable melange of classical, vaudeville and tango tunes; and lyricist Susan Birkenhead,
who deserves the most credit of all for perfecting a blend of sophistication and silliness that makes you think this is what Stephen Sondheim would be like if he were willing to be goofy.
Set in a garden in ancient Sparta, the story revolves around Princess Leonide (Susan Egan), who decides she loves Agis (Christopher Sieber), an exiled prince whose throne has been taken over by Leonide’s family. With Agis bad-mouthing the princess and her clan, Leonide has her amorous work cut out for her.
The revamped script sweetens Leonide’s character and makes her seem less predatory, more sympathetic. It also helps that Egan’s Leonide is as appealing as she is assertive. Whether appearing as herself or in the male disguise she dons to get close to the unsuspecting Agis, Leonide is eye-catching. Tony-nominated as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” Egan sings with great
assurance in numbers including “Anything.”
As Agis, Sieber gets to sing the praises of Spartan living in the garden of his philosopher-guardians. Favoring the intellect over the emotions, he says at one point, “Look at the havoc Helen of Troy caused.” Sieber possesses a matinee-idol face that itself could launch quite a few ships, but he can’t quite triumph over a problematic character. Leonide has both beauty and brains going for her, but Agis mostly stands around looking handsome and uttering platitudes. You can’t help wondering what Leonide sees in him. Sieber also occasionally has some vocal strain in his musical numbers, which again puts him at a relative
The secondary characters are universally strong. As the philosophers watching over Agis, Hermocrates (Robert LuPone) and his sister, Hesione (Mary Beth Peil), are severe rationalists who state that even crying should be done in moderation. Both actors play their parts with wonderful puritanical stiffness.
Leonide’s know-it-all servant, Corine (Denny Dillon), offers cheeky comments on the romantic intrigue. And a couple of characters derived from commedia dell’arte tradition and its burlesque progeny function as servants to
Hermocrates: the thin valet Harlequin (Kenny Raskin) and the fat gardener Dimas (Daniel Marcus) are wonderful when songfully feeling sorry for themselves in
“Henchmen Are Forgotten.”
The basic plotting is long on charm, but at two hours, 20 minutes the show lso is just plain long (particularly for a small-scale, whimsical musical). Director Michael Mayer and choreographer Doug Varone keep things moving along, but much tightening in the first act is needed.
Set designer Heidi Landesman places the action in a somewhat abstract, labyrinthine garden that neatly encapsulates 18th century attempts to control nature. Against this ultra-rational setting, the costumes by Catherine Zuber are colorful and cartoonish reminders that all the world’s a vaudeville stage populated by the likes of philosophers and princesses. The pit band and other production contributions will, in the manner of Marivaux, please both your head and your heart.