Broadway’s Royale Theater is teeming with triumphs. By the end of the adorable new musical “Triumph of Love,” so many small victories have been made that the show’s early shortfalls are excused, if remembered at all. Modest in everything but talent and charm, this chamber-size comedy just might have the sass to take its place alongside the season’s big-budget lions.
Certainly one of those victories belongs to director Michael Mayer, who makes an impressive Broadway debut by pulling together a note-perfect cast, witty book (by James Magruder) and a delightful score (by composer Jeffrey Stock and lyricist Susan Birkenhead). His careful balance of sincerity and irony is as fresh and improbable as the purple-and-green color scheme of the topiary set designed by Heidi Ettinger (formerly Landesman).
Adapted from Marivaux’s 18th century French comedy, “Triumph” is a farceur’s spin on the Greek tale of a princess’s attempt to win the heart of a young philosophy student. Assuming various guises of both genders, the love-struck Princess Leonide (Susan Egan) sneaks into the stern, rigid domain of Sparta, the garden retreat of stern, rigid philosopher Hermocrates (F. Murray Abraham), his equally emotionless sister, Hesione (Betty Buckley), and their handsome nephew and student, Agis (Christopher Sieber).
Accompanied by her bawdy maid, Corine (Nancy Opel), and soon assisted by the Spartan clown/servants Harlequin (Roger Bart) and Dimas (Kevin Chamberlin), the princess must woo the naive student without revealing her true identity: The student is the true prince of the land, raised by his aunt and uncle with the sole intent of dethroning (and worse) the princess.
Melding a bright, comic-book style with a campy, irreverent wit, “Triumph” pulls off the hip fairy-tale tone that eluded last season’s “Once Upon a Mattress.” More surprisingly, the broad comedy seamlessly (and quite effectively) gives way to moments of real poignancy as the aging brother and sister (impeccably played by Abraham and Buckley) open their long-closed hearts to the dangers of love.
A primly coifed and bespectacled Buckley gives full voice to her character’s vulnerability in the soaring number “Serenity,” a lovely song that should become part of the singer’s concert repertoire. Showcasing not only the performer’s incomparable pipes, the song displays Birkenhead’s disarming way with a lyric, clever and amusing rhymes gracefully presented.
“Serenity” is one of several high points of a somewhat uneven first act (Opel’s comic “Mr. Right” and Abraham’s “Emotions” are two others), with the complicated plot demanding stop-and-start exposition. The musical doesn’t really develop its heart until intermission approaches, as the characters take on depth.
But a fast-moving second act quickly hits its stride with a Sondheim-esque duet between Abraham and Buckley (“The Tree”), never letting go through Egan’s big solo (“What Have I Done?”), the servants’ vaudeville song-and-dance (“Henchmen are Forgotten”) and a final line of dialogue, expertly delivered by Buckley, that earns its laugh without sacrificing the pathos of an ending that remembers love’s losers.
While Abraham doesn’t have the vocal strength of his co-stars, he nonetheless commands the stage with a finely textured performance. Both he and, especially, Buckley, the most distinctive voice on Broadway, melt almost imperceptibly from dour to heartbreaking.
Egan, Tony-nominated for her perf in “Beauty and the Beast,” here moves to the front ranks of musical actresses, sweet but strong and lending a distinct personality to each of the princess’s various guises (including a whispery, Marilyn Monroe-like sexpot). The handsome Sieber keeps apace, putting a welcome comic spin on the familiar Prince Charming character.
The leads get terrific support from their servants, with Opel quite appealing as the sexually liberated maid, Chamberlin funny as the deadpan gardener and Bart, whose face and limbs must be made of Silly Putty, right on target as the devilish clown. All are fine singers, and dance well under Doug Varone’s unobtrusive choreography.
Despite a relatively modest budget (less than $4 million), the musical has been given a very pretty physical production, rich in hues of violet and chartreuse. Catherine Zuber’s fanciful Louis XIV period costumes, Paul Gallo’s lush lighting and Ettinger’s garden set (a maze of green blocks and wedges) are, like most else in “Triumph of Love,” winners.