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April 29, 2010

'Triumph of Love' gets charming revival from Olney Theatre

The persistent folly of us mortals when it comes to pursuing romance or power (or both) has provided abundant fuel for any number of theatrical works over the centuries. Among the entertaining examples is an early 18th-century play, Pierre Marivaux’s “The Triumph of Love,” sparked with cross-gender disguises and sexual-political complications.

That piece found its way into our own time and place, thanks to a much-admired translation by James Magruder that was produced in 1993 at Center Stage, where he was dramaturg. The play version subsequently was developed into a musical with a book by Magruder, music by Jeffrey Stock and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Launched in 1996 at Center Stage, the tuned-up show then had a short run on Broadway.

“Triumph of Love” is now back on the boards in our region, enjoying something of a, well, triumph at the Olney Theatre (running through May 9). This revival of the clever musical has panache and charm to spare. A vibrant cast, fluently directed by Clay Hopper, digs into the material so engagingly that any weaker elements — some creaky jokes, a few draggy or padded passages (it's a long show) — are easily overlooked.

The story revolves around Leonide, who came to be princess of Sparta through less than honorable means, and unfolds in a topiary-dotted French garden (this is ancient Sparta in name only). Leonide has developed a crush on the sheltered Agis, who just happens to be the legitimate heir to the Spartan throne and is sworn to kill her.

Leonide adopts a male disguise to get closer to Agis, and things quickly go awry from there. Before it’s all over, the princess pretends to be various people, male and female, and ends up with two men (Agis and his philosopher uncle Hermocrates) and one woman (Hesione, repressed sister of Hermocrates) in love with her. Meanwhile, Leonide’s maid, Corine, has adventures of her own with Hesione’s gardener, Dimas, and valet, Harelquin (of course, there’s a joke about “a Harlequin romance”).

Got all that? Never mind. It’s better to just surrender and enjoy this frothy farce about the transformative effect of love, or at least sex. And that’s easy to do, since

the Olney production does not push or belabor anything. A sense of whimsy prevails, along with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge. No one's pretending this is Shakespeare, or Sondheim. (Looking back on reactions to the show when it opened on Broadway, I wonder if  certain New Yorkers just weren't in the mood at the time for a little humor on wry.)

Speaking of Sondheim, his influence can be detected all over the score, in rhythm, melody and wordplay. If the tunes and lyrics don't quite rise to the master’s level, they get the job done skillfully. The musical also makes an occasional nod to Andrew Lloyd Webber (the second act ballad “Love Won’t Take No for an Answer,” for example) and even Frank Loesser — “Henchmen are Forgotten,” a terrific buddy duet for Dimas and Harlequin, would sound right at home in “Guys and Dolls.”

The tight-knit ensemble features Patricia Hurley as Leonide. Her singing could use refining, especially on high notes, but her assured, engaging performance gives the production a solid center. She handles all the gender switching with finesse and puts abundant color into her delivery of lines. At one point, on her way offstage, a delicious smile spreads across her face as she delivers a brisk aside: “I love me in this.” She's not alone.

Jake Odmark makes an appealing Agis, deftly capturing the gradual shift in the would-be ruler's world, from naive and bookish to hormonal. He sings pleasantly as well. Stephen F. Schmidt (Hermocrates) and Helen Hedman (Hesione) likewise bring effective acting and vocal skills to their assignments; they both generate considerable sympathy when the final plot twist leaves them facing the deflation of love.

Andrea Andert is a hoot as the omni-amorous Corine, bounding about the stage with extra vitality and a wealth of telling facial expressions. She can sing up a storm, too. J. J. Kaczynski does a dynamic spin as Harlequin, vocally and theatrically. And Lawrence Redmond is an amusing, gravelly Dimas, who seems to have taken voice lessons from Jimmy Durante.

The action plays out smoothly on Cristina Todesco’s unit set. An excellent six-piece band, led by Chris Youstra at the keyboard, is tucked neatly upstage. Pei Lee’s fanciful costumes add a good deal to the package.

PHOTOS BY STAN BAROUH COURTESY OF OLNEY THEATRE

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:02 AM | | Comments (1)
        

Comments

Great review of a very entertaining show. Thanks for adding your theater reviews to your classical music blog! Twice the enjoyment!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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