By JK Clarke
Edmond de Rostand’s 1897 play, Cyrano de Bergerac is a story that lends itself to reinterpretation and modernization. With a simple, straightforward theme about self-confidence (or lack thereof) and judgment based on superficial external traits, it actually becomes more relatable when placed in contemporary settings. Case in point, the delightful 1987 film, Roxanne, starring Steve Martin, which tends to be from whence many folks these days know the story. Now there’s a new version, Cyrano, a musical adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt and originally commissioned and developed by Goodspeed Musicals, now playing at the Daryl Roth Theatre and presented by The New Group.
Schmidt’s Cyrano isn’t meant to be a simple interpretation of de Bergerac’s play. Rather, it takes the bones of the story and focuses on its core elements: desire, shame and the consequences of not taking a chance. In her stage directions she instructs that “the words should NOT be precious but should be delivered quickly and easily and with a modern ear.” While that may be disappointing to those who cherish the original’s rhyming couplets, archaic as they sound today, the play’s poetry resides in gorgeous new songs by the Grammy winning rock band, The National (music by The National’s Aaron Dressner, Bryce Dressner with lyrics by Carin Besser and the band’s Matt Berninger). The songs, best described as accessible alt-rock, are often dreamy and ethereal mid-tempo numbers that complement and don’t dominate the story, punctuating scenes perfectly, not awkwardly, while blending naturally in and out of dialogue. One could easily see a musical adaptation of de Rostand’s original employing corny or whimsical songs, but conveying a very different mood. Schmidt and The National eschew that route, staying instead with songs that punctuate the characters’ various moods of longing, anguish, frustration and self-pity. The many darkly amusing moments don’t give way to hilarity, but stay with the plays central emotion of romantic foreboding.
The production’s major draw is Peter Dinklage as Cyrano, who’s both husband to Ms. Schmidt as well as the world-renowned and beloved Tyrion Lannister from HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Fans will undoubtedly flock to the show to catch a glimpse of Dinklage on stage. They likely won’t be disappointed, but they’ll also be surprised by his rich baritone. Dinklage, sporting a civil war -era beard and shaggy hair, is a capable singer who brings convincing and emotive performances to his songs. The whole point of Cyrano is to eventually sympathize with this tragic fool, and he brings on the empathy with aplomb.
But what about the, uh, nose? The original play’s cornerstone is that Cyrano, a wealthy nobleman, unparalleled swordsman and lyrical poet/musician, has a pathologically short temper when it comes to comments about his grossly oversized proboscis. That’s the play’s comic lynchpin and the source of Cyrano’s tragic flaw. He’s so ashamed of his appearance that he forgoes telling the beautiful and intellectually matched Roxanne of his love for her. Instead, he helps a handsome young soldier, Christian, woo her by writing letters for him and even standing under her balcony while he successfully feeds Christian romantic lines, in place of Christian’s banal utterances. In this production, however, there is no oversized prosthetic and mentions of the nose are kept to just one, quickly dismissed, in the opening act. And anyone presuming that the replacement object of derision would be Dinklage’s height (he was born with achrondroplaisa, a common form of dwarfism, and stands at four feet, four inches) will be quickly dissuaded from that notion, as no mention is made whatsoever.
The point of this Cyrano is not the consequences of mockery, but rather the tragedy of self-consciousness and self-loathing. In “Need For Nothing” Cyrano’s friend and sympathetic confidant Le Bret (Josh A. Dawson, charming in the role) sings, “Why can’t you see your pride will lead to nothing?” The cherished-by-all Roxanne—beautifully portrayed and sung by Jasmine Cephas Jones (who originated the roles of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in Hamilton)—really has no inkling that Cyrano loves her and therefore never has a chance to consider his love. He’s a close childhood friend (and distant cousin) and she believes that to be the origin and extent of their bond. And while she’s certainly attracted to Christian (the golden-throated and, yes, handsome Blake Jenner), she’s never given a chance, because of Cyrano’s meddling, to understand what a vapid bore he is. Cyrano, by extension, is guilty of denying her the agency to decide for herself whom she loves, and why. The play’s tragic twists compound horribly upon themselves again and again like the grimmest of Greek tragedies.
The production is rounded out by not only the remainder of an excellent cast (including Richie Coster, Hillary Fisher, Christopher Gurr and Grace McLean), but by scenic and movement elements that combine to drive further home the story’s melancholia. Christine Jones and Amy Rubin’s use of projections and a versatile back wall on a simple proscenium stage is elegant, converting the seemingly plain space from a theater to a bakery to a walled garden hanging with wisteria to a battlefront trench, all through the simple folding and unfolding of panels on the wall or projections of Cyrano’s handwritten verse. Jeff and Rick Kuperman’s movement direction (along with Jeff Croiters soft, evocative lighting) create everything from a tableau vivant of an active pastry kitchen to the front lines of a bloody war with elegant, slow motion ballets that still somehow portray the events’ frenetic energy.
Through her astute alterations, Schmidt delivers a much different Cyrano than the one to which we’re accustomed, but perhaps she gets to the heart of the story more succinctly. The story of the man, Cyrano, is not one of a person undone by mockery, but rather the foreboding of self-exposure, which makes this immensely satisfying production the tragedy perhaps it’s meant to be.
Cyrano. Through December 22 at the Daryl Roth Theatre (101 East 15th Street, at Union Square East). Two hours, five minutes with one intermission. www.thenewgroup.org
Photos: Monique Carboni