In the new tuner “Dangerous Beauty,” the biggest war isn’t between real-life 16th-century courtesan Veronica Franco (Jenny Powers) and Venice’s ruling elite. Nor is it the Renaissance instrumentation and contemporary rock idioms dueling within Michele Brourman and Amanda McBroom’s score. The main conflict is a sparkling premise living cheek by jowl with cliches and key miscasting. Tuner is already an improvement on its 1992 pic source, though both poop out by midpoint. Yet strict adherence to the project’s ostensible prefeminist vision could lead to shapely legs and its own renaissance.
Jeannine Dominy’s screenplay and libretto cleverly pit prefeminist heroine Franco against the macho, mercantile Venetian empire. Whether as history or metaphor, a fatherless maiden’s decision to follow mother (the radiant Laila Robins) into high-class prostitution is potent, ripe with dramatic irony.
She plays her lovers like a harpsichord; wins impromptu verse contests with one iamb tied behind her back; rescues the armada in a tryst with France’s king; and teaches respectable ladies what war is all about. Yet she’s never Superwoman; the stakes are always high and the odds against her.
For a while, gutsy storytelling – and director Sheryl Kaller’s daring to build tension through fraught silence – support Veronica’s fiery aplomb. Her courtesanship initiation is no twee “Gigi” turn once Robins starts investing her advice with bitter memories. Dominy creates a believable antagonist in local yokel Maffio (Bryce Ryness, rivaling Bill Nighy in boozy lurching), when the Inquisition proves willing to redeem his romantic failures.
If Maffio’s Savonarola transformation were a little less abrupt, and McBroom gave the city fathers some truly satirical lyrics, the stage would be set for that rarity, a period tuner with contempo political heft.
Alas, Veronica all too soon is reduced to a generic musical comedy ingenue a la Nellie Forbush, more ingenuous cutie than dangerous beauty. Powers, a pretty colleen, lacks Mediterranean sensuality as she glowingly belts forgettable power ballads with unrelieved earnestness. Clomping around Tom Buderwitz’s multilevel set, she seems like Jo March in “Little Women” declaiming one of her mock-Gothic tragedies. (Powers played sensible Meg on Broadway.)
Then Dominy insists we take seriously a stock romance with unavailable but ardent Marco (James Snyder, hunky and blond like so many Italian rakehells). That one can synopsize the plot without even mentioning this lout says something about the creators’ effort to shoehorn in a moony love story appealing to the tweener-slash-Frank Wildhorn demographic.
Neither Powers nor Snyder seems any closer to the show’s locale than Venice, California, and the more time spent with their dreary doings the less “Dangerous Beauty” attracts either mind or pulse.
Acting and tech credits are hit or miss. Megan McGinnis is touching as the fragile Beatrice, Michael Rupert wasted as a limping exposition deliverer. Buderwitz’s colorful, Tintoretto-inspired streetscape clashes with Benoit-Swan Pouffer’s waist-up herky-jerks identified in the program as choreography.
Lighting man Russell Champa overuses water effects and corny spotlights, but when the plague and the Church (one and the same?) denude the city of gaiety, he and Buderwitz collaborate on a chilling ghost town vision.
A note of dissent from the widespread praise for Soyon An’s costumes. Though elaborate, not a one looks lived in, and heavy shoes and Vegas-cut skirts take the chorus line of attractive courtesans from voluptuous to chunky. Powers’ effort to hold her own in a man’s world of men succeeds too well in her unflattering dueling pants, while Ryness’ leather breeches drive him rather in the other direction. Costume kudos must be withheld when the petite McGinnis, wrapped in yellow, resembles an overstuffed blintz.