For those younger members of the audience who do not know Edmond Rostand’s classic French play, Cyrano de Bergerac, the new musical Cyrano presented by The New Group at the Darryl Roth Theatre may be entertaining enough. However, for those of us who know the original, the compromises and excisions from the text make it a shadow of its former itself. Don’t blame film and television star Peter Dinklage who gives a vigorous performance in the title role. However, he is hampered by the adaptation by director Erica Schmidt who happens to be his wife.
In shaping Rostand’s play to fit her star, Schmidt has removed all reference to Cyrano’s nose and substituted Dinklage’s diminutive size instead. This means that all of the witty lines about oversized appendages are now gone, which removes most of the play’s humor. But the play has no lines about Cyrano’s height so this becomes simply a visual item as well as Cyrano’s poor self-image thinking that no woman could love him. The story of the ill-fated love of Cyrano, poet, wit and soldier for his cousin Roxanne, which morphs into a three-way affair when he discovers that she loves the handsome soldier Christian, and ghost writes love letters for him, so that she never knows that they are from him, is still in evidence but much diminished. The word that Rostand invented (“panache”) is nowhere in evidence.
The cast has been cut down to 11 which means all except four of the actors (Cyrano, Roxanne, Christian and De Guiche) have to double and triple in various roles which becomes more that a little disconcerting as they reappear in places and roles that that should not be. In comparison, the last New York production with Kevin Kline had 27 actors. Unfortunately, other than Dinklage, the rest of the cast is one dimensional which gives him little to play against. Handsome Christian is supposed to be tongue-tied around women but able to converse among men; Blake Jenner is deficient in both aspects. Jasmine Cephas Jones as Roxanne is stylish but not much else. As the Duke De Guiche, Ritchie Coster is simply revengeful and vindictive. Cyrano’s best friend le Bret played by Josh A. Dawson is nothing more than exasperated by the risks Cyrano takes. Only Grace McLean as Roxanne’s chaperone and maid Marie shows sparkles with a layered performance.
Although the original play begins in 1640, the costumes by Tom Broecker appear to be 19th and 20th century, but are very inconsistent: the women begin in floor length gowns, then appear in ankle length dresses, and then go back to long dresses. The men who do not wear army uniforms are in three piece suits which could be 19th century or 20th century. The soldiers sport swords on their waists but in the battle scenes are handed rifles. It is all rather confusing. Christine Jones and Amy Rubin’s serviceable scenery is completely indeterminate as to the time or the place though we are in a major city (but no longer specified as Paris) and later at the battle front, but there is no sense of atmosphere. However, as it takes place in a country with a king and all the character names are French, this seems a little disingenuous. Jeff Croiter’s lighting seems to be dark in all five acts which are presented in two parts.
And then there is the original score of 18 songs with music by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner of rock band The Nationals, and lyrics by Matt Berninger of The Nationals as well as Carin Besser, all of whom appear to be writing their first musical play. Due to the orchestrations which mainly make use of combinations of one violin, two guitars and a piano, all of the songs sound the same. Worse still is the fact that the songs tell us what we already know from the dialogue so that although they are pleasant enough to listen to, they are totally extraneous. This is often the case with songwriters writing their first stage musical rather than on the concert stage.
With the poetry gone, the romance diminished and the hero’s reason for his low self-esteem missing, there seems little reason for another Cyrano except as a vehicle for Peter Dinklage. However, any version that tampers with one of the great curtain lines (“I have loved only one man, and I have lost him twice”) has a lot to answer for.
Cyrano (through December 22, 2019)
The New Group
Darryl Roth Theatre, 101 W. 15th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-745-3800 or visit http://www.thenewgroup.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission