Roman Holiday at the Guthrie Theater

Edward Watts and the Ensemble in Roman Holiday. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

One can’t dismiss Roman Holiday (at the Guthrie Theater, through August 19) as a garbled and predictable musicalization of a classic 1950s film.  Production values are too high.  This is the great and grand Guthrie.  They have spent a gazillion dollars on the design, and it shows, from set designer Todd Rosenthal‘s magnificent false proscenium, his nifty use of projections, the way everything flows so perfectly – and dang me if they didn’t build a replica of the Trevi Fountain, all for a single scene.  Costumer Matthew J. LeFebvre‘s frumpy 50s clothes are swell as heck, as are lighting designer’s Donald Holder‘s rich atmospherics, his use of follow spots.  I couldn’t take my eyes off those immense moveable white instruments on either side of the stage.

And the acting, boffo.  The cast is a veritable who’s who of the local music theater scene: David Anders, Lee Mark Nelson, David Anthony Brinkley (lovely as Joe’s crusty editor), et al.  The always-terrific Christina Baldwin performs an outstanding tango-inflected “Just One Of Those Things,” (from 1935’s Can-Can).  Michelle Barber does a suberb turn as the Princess’s fussy but wise and perfectly coiffed aunt, who wants to maintain her charge’s virginal purity despite her own over-sexed past (“I Sleep Easier Now,” from Out Of This World, 1950).

To play the two leads, the Guthrie has imported two pros from Gotham, Stephanie Rothenberg as Princess Anne and Edward Watts as Joe Bradley.  Needless to say, they are wonderful singers, but they are also first rate actors, capturing perfectly the Princess’s earnest sweetness and Joe’s good-hearted bluster.

And Cole Porter‘s songs!  Wow.  If you have any doubt that this man is a true  treasure, that his songs are brilliant beyond words, go see Roperson Holiday.  The songs are given beautiful – if long and extended (more on this momentarily) – renditions.

Kudos to director John Miller-Stephany for keeping all these plates up and spinning.

But, Lord, this is a dorky story.  Likely you know its basic parameters: Princess Anne, after a sedative injection, escapes from her not-so-well-guarded bedroom.  She meets Joe Bradley, journalist and, in this version, creator of brilliant (Cole Porter) songs.  She collapses.  Joe takes her back to his tiny room and the next day gives the cloistered Anne an inspiring tour of Rome: the (famous) Vespa ride, the Trevi fountain.  Meanwhile Joe’s nefarious pal Irving sneaks pictures.  This creates a quandary: will Joe sell the pictures and the story for thousands?  Or will the dictates of looove win out?  I’ll let you guess the answer.

The great strength of Roman Holiday is the Cole Porter songs.  The great weakness of Roman Holiday is the Cole Porter songs.  All the musical material was originally created for other shows; book writer Paul Blake has pulled them in from a wide variety of sources.  Sometimes they work.  “Experiment” from Nymph Errant was originally overtly about sex; still it fits nicely here.  But sometimes the songs do nothing to advance the story (the aforementioned “Just One Of Those Things” is an example).  And sometimes they are simply wrong.  Call me a crotchety young fogey but all the way through Anne and Joe’s soulful “Every Time We Say Good-bye” I was bothered by the fact that this was the first time they ever said good-bye.  Right, wrong or irrelevant, the songs are given hyped up, lengthy, let’s-take-it-to-10 interpretations.  Meanwhile, the story is fitfully developed.

One final complaint: to make Joe a songwriter is extremely ill-considered.  It deprives the central quandary (Do I rat the Princess out?) of any real suspense.  Of course he won’t; he’ll just go back to his room and write extraordinary songs.  This time next year he’ll be a lionized composer.

I know, many of my criticisms of Roman Holiday – its predictability, its toothlessness – are the very things that will attract audiences.  So you must make a decision: do you like Porter’s amazing music, and fabulous design, and outstanding acting and singing enough to ignore a garbled and uninvolving story?  If so, by all means, see Roman Holiday.  You won’t be disappointed.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

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