With its romance, comedy, glamor, star parts and conveniently simple plot, one might wonder why William Wyler’s 1953 screen classic “Roman Holiday” has never gotten a significant stage musicalization before. Actually, it still hasn’t — the show now making a pre-Broadway run at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theater is very much a jukebox musical, complete with the usual sense of proceedings reduced to a flimsy excuse for familiar songs, shoehorned into the nominal context as best they can.
That the songs are by Cole Porter makes this a sonically pleasant bit of fluff. That “Roman Holiday” becomes such a generic excuse for them renders this innocuous evening old-fashioned in the wrong sense, of being quaintly passé rather than charming. And if you’re going to revamp the movie that made Audrey Hepburn a star, charm is something you cannot do without. Better suited for heartland road audiences — for whom prior productions as far back as 2001 were staged in St. Louis and Minneapolis — “Roman Holiday,” hoping for a Broadway bow in the fall, will likely get the kind of greeting once afforded Christians by lions if it braves the Great White Way in its current form, with no star power to distract from the general mediocrity of the enterprise.
The original film isn’t really all that, either, but it did “introduce” the enchanting Audrey (though she’d already been featured in a couple under-radar British films) paired with all-American dreamboat Gregory Peck. The location shooting further punched across what was essentially a warmed-over Ruritania romance at a moment when Rome was just beginning to acquire its postwar dolce-vita electricity. It takes quite a long time for Hepburn’s Princess Anne to liberate herself from the drudgery of her “inaugural goodwill tour” and get (innocently) picked up by Peck’s jaded Yankee newsman. But the long warm-up to their day of playing hooky in the Eternal City pays off: When Anne must again relinquish freedom for duty, we’ve already been steeped in the dull inescapability of the demands her status imposes. These 24 hours may be all the frivolous youth she’ll ever enjoy.
By contrast, the musical’s rote book simply dumps Anne on the street after a couple of initial scenes, rendering her escape inconsequential and her exhaustion (mistaken for drunkenness) neither funny nor explicable. While the film’s sole notable supporting character was Eddie Albert as hero photographer Irving, here as second leads we get Eddie (Jarrod Spector) as well as bombshell chanteuse girlfriend Francesca (Sara Chase), who is wearying of his empty marriage promises. Then there’s Georgia Engel in the more-or-less new comic role of Anne’s dotty-auntie Countessa.
A “more the merrier” logic ought to apply here—after all, the wafer-thin original story could use some bulking up. But alas, as cast and directed, none of the four leads demonstrate the personality to enliven (let alone transcend) their stock character types. Meanwhile, Engel’s familiar antic delivery can only do so much with the dismal memory-fart digressions she’s handed as a running gag here.
The younger performers certainly can sing, and there is pleasure to be had in hearing the likes of “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine,” Easy to Love” and other Porter tunes well-sung in any context. But the arrangements are pedestrian; even the songs that fit more than just passably into the slight narrative (“Experiment,” “Take Me Back to Manhattan”) sound simply recycled rather than repurposed.
It’s also no small problem that the music is one more thing here that never feels remotely Italian. “Roman Holiday” is nothing if not a paean to the city’s seduction, but director Marc Bruni and the writers seem so immune to its character that at one point Anne is delighted by a mime. Occasional projections suggesting the protagonists’ tour of sites (complete with shadow-puppet moped marking their progress) don’t exactly make Rome come alive.
On the plus side, the physical production is indeed handsomely awash in Mediterranean colors, with attractive costumes and fluid set-pieces of faux stone and statuary. Alex Sanchez’s choreography stays within period, serving up the occasional midcentury MGM Gene Kelly-esque moment of romantic near-ballet or early-Fosse jazz. But it’s not a very dancey show, and the more movement-oriented sequences feel an artificial excuse to insert another familiar song.
Audiences today can hardly be expected to suspend disbelief as they did sixty-odd years ago, but nonetheless it’s dismaying that this new “Holiday” expends so little real effort asking them to. Gehling makes an affable-enough lanky hero, while Styles has the crystalline soprano Hepburn wished she had a decade later on “My Fair Lady” (in which her songs were voiced by Marni Nixon). But while she also occasionally apes her predecessor’s distinctive speaking voice, this Anne doesn’t feel exotically sheltered, a rare bird spreading its wings for the first and possibly last time. Instead, she seems an ordinary girl—more like an average collegiate or twentysomething—who asks a bit much in claiming she’s a princess who’s never spent an unchaperoned moment.
If we can’t buy that, “Roman Holiday” becomes a cut-rate package tour, one on which Porter’s presences seems a tad incongruous. He’s too elegant for this company.