Triumph of Love is the Tina Fey of musicals—smart and sexy.
Those who prefer some brains with their bong-chica-bong-bong will revel in Olney Theatre Center’s goofy and gossamer-light production, directed by Clay Hopper with an appreciation for the old slap and tickle.
An exemplary cast performing Jeffrey Stock’s archly romantic score and Susan Birkenhead’s amusing lyrics, an emerald-hued topiary set by Cristina Todesco that’s a verdant sight for snow-sore eyes, sorbet-colored costumes by Pei Lee you just want to dig into with a spoon, wigs by Nan Flanagan that would make Lady Gaga green with envy and flirty orchestration by Christopher Youstra that features a harpist—what more could you ask for in a springtime musical?
Like many romances, the path of Triumph did not run smooth. The adaptation of Marivaux’s 1732 Paris comedy successfully premiered at Baltimore’s CenterStage, with a book by the theater’s then-dramaturg James Magruder. Then, the musical moved onto Broadway in 1998, where it was whomped by an unkind New York Times review by Vincent Canby and swamped by such competition as The Lion King, Ragtime, and Sideshow. Not even the inimitable Betty Buckley could save Triumph from closing after a couple months.
Fortunately, the musical endured in subsequent regional and international productions and Olney’s radiant staging brings out the best in this witty dialectic between love and reason.
Triumph also features a liberated and not immediately likable heroine, a young woman who is not above gender-bending and blatant lying to get what she wants. Sparta’s Princess Leonide (Patricia Hurley) is captivated by a beautiful young scholar, Agis (Jake Odmark) whom she spies in a cloistered formal garden presided over by Hesione (Helen Hedman) and Hermocrates (Stephen E. Schmidt), sister and brother schoolmarm-philosophers dedicated to logic and enlightenment. Along with her libidinous servant Corine (Andrea Andert), Leonide is determined to infiltrate this fortress of rational thought and get Agis to think with another part of his body other than his head.
Once among the topiary, however, things do not go along at an elegant clip. Leonide passes herself off as a man of the world and befriends Agis, who confides (in the song “The Bond that Can’t Be Broken”) that he has been groomed since birth to avenge the death of his parents, the rightful rulers of Sparta, by assassinating none other than Princess Leonide. OK, a small snag, which grows bigger once Agis sees through the disguise and she blurts out a whopper about being an orphan (“The Sad and Sordid Saga of Cecile,” a witty patter song) fleeing from impending marriage to an odious old man. In the meantime Corine, lures two rustic lovers into being accomplices, the gardener Dimas (Lawrence Redmond) and the Harlequin (J.J. Kaczynski), plying her hip-thrusting wares in the bawdy number “Mr. Right.”
At this point, most people would throw in the towel and look elsewhere for l’amour, but not our Leonide. In her quest for Agis, she contrives to unstarch Hemocrates and make him fall in love with her and, in the guise of a young man, resuscitates the withered heart of Hesione.
You need a Leonide who could charm the pants off the Pope for all of this to seem palatable, especially in the treatment toward Hesione (played with aching repression by Miss Hedman), who sings hauntingly of the rewards of self-denial in the showstopper “Serenity.” Mr. Schmidt, as the buttoned up Hermocrates, also escapes caricature by imbuing the character a gentle poignancy, as expressed in the song “The Tree” and the rueful duet with Hesione, “Love Won’t Take No for an Answer.”
Luckily, the dulcet-voiced Miss Hurley is effortlessly seductive, possessing that heat-off-the-skin quality that makes anyone melt. Her sexuality shines with such intensity that the object of her affection, broodingly played by Mr. Odmark, pales in comparison. She seems better matched by the formidable Mr. Schmidt and Miss Hedman.
Although Marivaux’s play pokes fun at the pretensions of the Age of Enlightenment, the musical version concentrates more on lower urges than higher thoughts. The dialogue and the lyrics tend toward the risqué and frisky, especially in the numbers featuring Mr. Kaczynski’s Harlequin and Mr. Redmond’s Dimas (who gives the stock character an unusual twist by playing him as a malcontent hunchback) and they are the zany embodiment of vaudeville baggy-pants clowns in “Henchmen are Forgotten.”
Although Mr. Stock’s music contains glints of Stephen Sondheim-style intellect, the show’s silly spirit also infects the score with a grab bag of styles that include tango, soul, swing, and music hall ditties. In fact, the music and the overall joie de vivre of Triumph represent the best-case scenario when it comes to love—a perfect union of the heart and mind.
Triumph of Love
Book by James Magruder, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, music by Jeffrey Stock
Based on the play by Pierre Marivaux
Directed by Clay Hopper
Music direction by Christopher Youstra
Produced by Olney Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Triumph of Love plays through May 9, 2010.
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