Review: ‘Nicolette and Aucassin’

Toss "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Kismet," "Camelot" and "Once Upon a Mattress" into a pot, stir vigorously, perform broadly and the end result might well be "Nicolette and Aucassin," Peter Kellogg and David Friedman's tongue-in-cheek spoof of the 13th century French romantic fable of the same name.

Toss “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Kismet,” “Camelot” and “Once Upon a Mattress” into a pot, stir vigorously, perform broadly and the end result might well be “Nicolette and Aucassin,” Peter Kellogg and David Friedman’s tongue-in-cheek spoof of the 13th century French romantic fable of the same name. Subtlety is not one of the production’s attributes, thanks to over-the-top performances and an aggressive sound system that turns the show into one sustained shout. Friedman’s music, though sometimes generic, does have attractive moments, but it isn’t always well served by director Seth Barrish’s blatant staging. Only if you like your musicals loud and obvious is “Nicolette and Aucassin” for you.

Set in 1224 Provence and Carthage, the plot revolves around Aucassin (Jeremy Webb), the son of a French count (Bill Buell), who wishes to marry Nicolette (Darlesia Cearcy), one of his father’s serving maids, a Moorish spoil of war (“She’s a Moor no more,” Aucassin assures us in Kellogg’s rhyming book).

Naturally, Aucassin’s father is against a marriage between the pair and complications ensue, the plot thickened by the fact that Nicolette is actually the daughter of a Carthaginian king.

Kellogg has a high old time with his dialogue and lyrics, complicating things further with Valere, a jester-like character played by Bronson Pinchot, who is loaded down with comic schtick. All ends riotously, although the harder the musical pushes to be funny the less funny it gets.

Friedman’s music and Steven Tyler’s arrangements include period references, with suggestions of recorders and lutes, and a tendency for some of the lyrical moments to threaten to segue into “Greensleeves.”

There are fast patter numbers, vaudeville numbers, love songs. Among the most attractive numbers are the full-cast “Stranger and Stranger,” the duet “If You Were in Love” for Cearcy and Nancy K. Anderson (who plays Gwendolyn, a dim-blonde daughter of a great warrior portrayed mightily by Richard White), and the love song “Now and Forever,” ardently performed by Cearcy and Webb. A deft five-piece backstage band accompanies the singers.

Of the performers, Jennifer Allen as a loud, raunchy nun and Buell as Aucassin’s furious father go the furthest over the top. As the lovers, Cearcy and Webb manage best at avoiding excesses and are easy on both the ear and eye, and Anderson, when not encouraged to flap around too outrageously, is amusingly droll as Gwendolyn.

Chuck Cooper as the Moorish king sings as splendidly as anyone, and Michael Wiggins, as a young Moor who has been promised Nicolette’s hand, is blithely dumb-eager. All 10 cast members work vigorously together.

Designer Markas Henry makes good use of every square foot of the WCP stage with a basic set of period columns and arches. Ever-changing props help to take the musical from France to Carthage and back swiftly. His costumes are suitably lavish in their use of brocades, silks and satins.

Because “Nicolette and Aucassin” has so clearly been conceived as a broad spoof, it’s a moot point whether a more subtle approach would improve it. But surely a lighter directorial touch, more nuanced performances and a gentler sound system could do no harm.

Nicolette and Aucassin

Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, Conn.; 707 seats; $38 top

Production

A Westport Country Playhouse presentation, in association with Ostar Enterprises, William P. Suter, Joe Davis and Kathleen Raitt, of a musical in two acts with book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg and music by David Friedman. Directed by Seth Barrish.

Creative

Choreographed by Karma Camp. Music director/orchestrator, Steven Tyler. Set and costumes, Markas Henry; lighting, Russell H. Champa; sound, Jody Elff; fight director, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Diane DiVita. Westport Country Playhouse CEO & executive director, Elissa O. Getto; artistic manager, Janice Muirhead. Opened Aug. 30, 2000. Reviewed Sept. 5. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Nun - Jennifer Allen Valere - Bronson Pinchot Nicolette - Darlesia Cearcy Lord Montescu - James Judy Aucassin - Jeremy Webb Count de Beauclaire - Bill Buell Count de Valence - Richard White Gwendolyn - Nancy K. Anderson King Mostansir - Chuck Cooper Nemur - Michael Wiggins
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