By Beatrice Williams-Rude
Don’t believe what you may have heard about the defeat of Napoleon: he just conquered Manhattan—in a splendid musical now at the Signature Theatre.
“Napoleon” looks at the trajectory of Napoleon’s career through the eyes of Tallyrand, the skilled diplomat who always knows which way the wind is blowing, and changes his positions accordingly. He is totally without convictions save that of surviving. Brilliantly played by Matthew Patrick Quinn–replete with lame leg—he’s a behind the scenes puppet-master, but discovers, to his dismay, that Napoleon is no puppet.
Joseph Leo Bwarie would seem at first glance to be an unlikely Napoleon, but first glances can be deceiving: he is splendid, incandescent and deeply moving. His energy could light up Manhattan.
“Napoleon” opens spectacularly with a giant shadow of Napoleon in his well-known regalia seen through a curtain. The music throbs, the curtain falls and we see a small Napoleon.
We are told that Napoleon has died and will be buried in an unmarked grave, which greatly upsets people, whose grief enrages Tallyrand. We are then taken back to the beginnings of Napoleon’s career.
The polarity is the aristocratic Tallyrand trying to mold and control a man who is a force of nature, while always reminding him “you came from nothing.”
Throw Josephine into the mix—whom neither man can control—and there emerges a bizarre triangle. Josephine is beautifully portrayed by the lovely, elegant Margaret Loesser Robinson.
The musical—I hate to call it an opera for fear of frightening potential theater-goers, but it really is an opera, whose singers have trained legit voices, but can also belt.
Andrew Sabiston wrote the clever and always on target lyrics and co-wrote the book; Timothy Williams wrote the exciting music—one could hear strains of Mozart’s Requiem at one point–and co-wrote the book. The music is overwhelmingly powerful and serves to further the action even though there are few memorable melodies.
The magnificent direction is by Richard Ouzounian. The producer is Ernie Rubenstein.
This is a grand production—as in grand opera—with innovative sets by April Soroko, most effective lighting by Driscoll Otto. David Margolin Lawson provides the excellent sound design. Costume design by Tracey Fess is problematic: Napoleon, Tallyrand and some of the soldiers are fittingly attired, but the rest are anachronistic, glaringly so with the women. Clarice, played by winsome Danielle Gimbal, wears a short-skirted, bouffant tutu. Nowhere are the “Empire” fashions (or hairstyles) of the period seen.
To attempt to present Napoleon’s life in a two-hour theater work is daunting. But the history is largely accurate and interestingly presented. The exception is Josephine’s botched abortion which took place before she met Napoleon.
At the end, when Tallyrand angrily predicts that Napoleon, his creation in his own eyes, will be treated badly by history, Napoleon, defends himself: “an oppressor? No, I was an emancipator.” Yes he was the latter: where Napoleon and his armies went, they tore down ghetto walls and fully enfranchised the inhabitants. “a tyrant? No, a liberator.” Yes, the latter. He crushed the Inquisition and released the inmates in Inquisition prisons (Inquisition: 1208-1908, but not during Napoleon’s reign). He gave France a new legal system, Code Napoleon, which is still used, including in the US, in Louisiana. The French Revolution and Napoleon melded into one proclaiming “liberté, egalité, fraternité.” They created a secular France.
To Tallyrand’s credit, at the Congress of Vienna following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, he connived to save France from being dismembered by the nations that had been conquered and were seeking retribution. This wily éminence grise served/betrayed the ancien régime, the Revolution, Napoleon, Louis XVIII and Louis Philippe.
The superb cast and musicians must be acknowledged: Dane Agostinis, Henri; Jenny Ashman, female ensemble; Wilson Bridges, Hippolyte; Jessica Crouch, Thérèse; Adam Daveline, Fouché; Nick Gaswirth, Garrau; Jack Mosbacher, he of the outstanding tenor voice, Anton; Christopher J. Nolan, Napoleon’s brother Lucien; Katerina Papacostas, Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s second wife, a Habsburg princess; Daniel Schwait, Paoli; Ryan Speakman, an exceptionally strong Barras, and the musicians: Joshua Zecher-Ross, music director and first keyboard; Daniel Lincoln, second keyboard; Micah Burgess, guitar; David Leblanc, drums; and Jessie Linden, percussion.
“Napoleon” is riveting, compelling, deeply moving and thoroughly enjoyable. It is altogether splendid. Run don’t walk to get your tickets; there are only three performances left. (I pray the theater gods will smile and grant “Napoleon” an open-ended run.)
Glorious “Napoleon” is at the Alice Griffin Theatre at the Pershing square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street in Manhattan. Performances Sunday, July 19 at 8:00p.m.; Monday, July 20 at 12 p.m., and Wednesday, July 22 at 9 p.m.
This admitted Napoleon devotee left the theater with moist eyes.
Repeat: run, don’t walk to get your tickets.
Photos: Rick Kallaher