“Paramour,” the new musical by Joe Masteroff and Howard Marren which closes the Old Globe’s season, seems to have its sights set on destinations beyond San Diego. Indeed, the musical has New York-bound written all over it. But it wears its ambition a bit too much on its sleeve, for anyone familiar with Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” is bound to comment on the similarities.
Sondheim based his 1973 musical on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film “Smiles of a Summer Night”; Masteroff (“She Love Me,” “Cabaret”) and Marren (a relatively untested talent) are inspired by Jean Anouilh’s 1952 play “The Waltz of the Toreadors.” Each musical tells a bittersweet story of romantic love and disappointment. But the comparisons between these shows don’t stop with the broad issues; the parallels are myriad.
Both “Night Music” and “Paramour” center on aging roues of some social distinction. Both are period pieces set in Europe. In both works, the action transpires in the countryside. Both shows lay claim to a fascinating hag (in “Paramour” it’s Madame St. Pe; in “Night Music” it’s Madame Armfeldt). Both shows find a son trumping his father in love. And if the similarities weren’t obvious enough, Len Cariou, who starred in the original Broadway production of “Night Music,” plays the lead in “Paramour.”
Moreover, Marren’s music, an indistinct pastiche for the most part, borrows heavily from Sondheim’s idiom. Yet there are lovely moments: The second-act entr’acte and “I Am His,” for instance, prove delightful. As for the book, much of it is simply lifted from Lucienne Hill’s translation of Anouilh’s play. What’s odd is that while “Waltz” achieves its laugh-out-loud humor through understatement, Masteroff gets his guffaws via heavy-handed means, though the bit about eclairs vs. cherry tarts is naughtily delectable. And Masteroff’s lyrics are sometimes masterful. His play on Rene the gourmet and Armand the gourmand is just one example.
At the center of things is Cariou’s General St. Pe, a dirty old man of great charm caught in a loveless marriage with an invalid wife. Cariou, whose credits on the stage are impeccable, is an actor of extraordinary charisma — and in this production, he never lets the audience forget it.
Running about the stage, he rants and rails in a portrayal that is, to employ the cliche, larger than life. But it wears on viewers after a while. It must even distract Cariou, for his accent, which should certainly be French, roved from Galway to the Cote d’Azur on opening night.
Melissa Hart’s Madame St. Pe, shrew of all shrews and decked out like some character from a Sid and Marty Kroft TV show, is equally frantic; she just has less time onstage. Yet in the confrontation scene at the end of act one, Hart and Cariou manage a strange manic energy that is dizzyingly gripping.
The object of the general’s affection is the chaste and elegant Angelique St. Denis, played by the statuesque Amanda Naughton, the paramour of this show’s title. For 17 years, the general and Angelique have proclaimed their love and done absolutely nothing about it. Now, Angelique is forcing the issue, coming to the general’s house with an ultimatum. But in the course of a frenzied day, she meets up with the general’s young secretary, Gaston (Joel Carlton), who turns out to be the general’s illegitimate son. Naturally, it’s Angelique and Gaston who find true love, much to the general’s chagrin.
Joseph Hardy directs the action with reasonable flair, though the quartet known as He, She, Him, Her — intended to represent the general and others at an earlier stage in life — seem hemmed in by the constraints of Ralph Funicello’s gorgeous art-nouveau set. Lewis Brown’s costumes are similarly lush, except for the general’s oddly plain tunic. David Segal handles the textured lighting.
Some might think viewing “Paramour” through the prism of Sondheim’s earlier masterpiece unfair, but theater is an organic art, existing in context. Ironically, it may be Sondheim fans who most enjoy “Paramour,” for the show will unquestionably remind them of a truly great musical.