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The Glorious Ones

"Why do we need the play written out?" asks Flaminio Scala, the fading hero of "The Glorious Ones." "We know the characters. We are the characters." From the point of view of a 17th-century Italian improviser, there's only shtick and more shtick.

Columbina - Natalie Venetia Belcon Dottore - John Kassir Isabella Andreini - Jenny Powers Flaminio Scala - Paul Schoeffler Armanda Ragusa - Julyana Soelistyo Francesco Andreini - Jeremy Webb

“Why do we need the play written out?” asks Flaminio Scala, the fading hero of “The Glorious Ones.” “We know the characters. We are the characters.” From the point of view of a 17th-century Italian improviser, there’s only shtick and more shtick. But if Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s musically lush but thematically sketchy new tuner is to celebrate thespians on a wider stage, it will need a lot more written out. The backstage period musical requires an actual book — with a firmer point of view — to go with its endlessly affectionate allegorical song suite about the timeless heroics of the creatures of the stage.

Even then, this show seems destined for mid-sized regional stagings rather than a date with Broadway. One suspects broad audiences will have some resistance to a Commedia dell’arte musical — period lazzi, after all, have limited charms these days, even when you have specialized Milanese actors doing the shtick.

But the strength of this piece is that it tries hard — with intermittent success — to reach beyond such limiting confines. In recent years, Flaherty and Ahrens have shown a laudable disregard for commerciality, preferring to musicalize, say, the life of Gertrude Stein, rather than get back into dangerous “Seussical” territory. Likely to appeal to sophisticates and insiders far more than general musical lovers, “The Glorious Ones” continues bravely in that vein.

For sure, this pleasing new collection of ditties will be showing up on cabaret stages, regardless of what happens to the rest of the show. Even though the composing team is theoretically adapting a Francine Prose novel about a commedia troupe, the show most obviously is a paean to those driven to cavort on the stage in any age.

In song after song, Flaherty and Ahrens pay homage to the resilience of the actor. The most powerful ditty of the night, “I Was Here,” is a full-throated statement of creative presence that might, were it delivered in drag, be a companion piece to “I Am What I Am.”

At other times, one can detect the restless ragtime keyboard stylings that have made Flaherty’s tunes justly loved. This is not a formatively progressive score, but it’s chock full of lovely melodies that dance in the brain. One hopes something more substantial can be fashioned to bind them together.

The commedia heroes of “The Glorious Ones” have two major conflicts. In the first part of the one-act show, Scala (Paul Schoeffler) and his merry band are preoccupied both with the quest for establishment (i.e. French) acceptance and with infighting among themselves.

In the second part, like a group of silent movie actors, they have to deal with their own apparent obsolescence, due to the growing popularity of scripted fare. Do they change with the times — meaning the older actors have to give way — or do they shrivel like fossils? Either way, they’re going to sing about it.

The best parts of Ahrens’ book affect a kind of “Shakespeare in Love” sensibility, using the struggles of the time as a metaphor for the eternal dilemmas of the artist. Clearly, this is the direction in which the show needs to go. If more can be made of sticking us right there at the creation, say, of Harlequin, that might generate a few goose bumps (in certain circles, at least).

Right now, there’s not enough distinction between the backstage world of these characters and their onstage personas. Granted, they were closely related. But we need to see these performers switch themselves on and off a whole lot more, if their story is to have resonance.

In Graciela Daniele’s woolly, small-scale premiere staging at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, scenarios meld into scenarios, performances meld into time and it’s all a bit of a sketchy blur. There’s not a lot here to get lost in, but you still scratch your head from time to time. That perhaps has more to do with the book than the direction, but, regardless, this show has yet to find its focus.

The narrative lacks drive and tension. Toward the end, when the improvising oldsters start to confront their own mortality, things liven up, though the pumped-up tragic ending is so unearned it feels cheap.

All in all, the show is far too hung up on the commedia shtick — which is less than thrilling– and far too light on backstage truths, which need to be front and center.

Yet you can’t help but regard this heart-felt piece with affection. The songs — including the stirring title number — are very appealing to anyone who cares about the arts. Musical director Tom Murray runs a tight, string-heavy group in Pittsburgh that sounds just great.

There’s also a lot of heart in the performances, especially Schoeffler and Natalie Venetia Belcon as the troupe’s two aging romantic leads. As the arrivistes, Jenny Powers and Jeremy Webb contend with underwritten roles, but drip with passionate intent. Actors know when they’re in a show written by people who love actors, and this cast clearly is already sold. Now they just have to sell the rest of us.

The Glorious Ones

Pittsburgh Public Theater, Pittsburgh; 650 seats; $53 top

Production: A Pittsburgh Public Theater presentation of a musical in one act with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, based on the novel by Francine Prose. Directed, choreographed by Graciela Daniele. Musical director, Thomas Murray.

Creative: Sets, Dan Ostling; costumes, Mara Blumenfeld; lighting, Stephen Sawbridge; sound, Zach Moore; production stage manager, Nevin Hedley. Opened April 28, 2007. Reviewed, April 28. Running time: 1 HOUR. 40 MIN.

Cast: Columbina - Natalie Venetia Belcon Dottore - John Kassir Isabella Andreini - Jenny Powers Flaminio Scala - Paul Schoeffler Armanda Ragusa - Julyana Soelistyo Francesco Andreini - Jeremy WebbMusical numbers: "The Glorious Ones," "Angels," "Making Love," "Pantalone Alone," "The Comedy of Love," "The Madness of Columbina," "Angels/The Glorious Ones" (reprise), "Absalom," "The Invitation to France," "Flaminio Scala's Historical Journey to France," "Armanda's Tarantella," "So Be It," "The World She Writes," "Opposite You," "The Elopement," "My Body Wasn't Why," "The Madness of Isabella," "Flaminio's Dream," "The World She Writes" (reprise), "Rise and Fall," "The Moon Woman," "Angels" (reprise), "I Was Here," "Armanda's Sack," "The Comedy of Love."

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