AISLE SAY New York
THE GLORIOUS ONES
Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Based on the novel by Francine Prose
Directed by Graciela Daniele
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center
(Downstairs of the Vivian Beaumont)
150 West 65th Street / (212) 239-6200
Reviewed by Mike Princeton
It is said that when Mel Brooks was auditioning prospective cast members for The Producers, one of the requirements was that they tell a joke. Which is actually kind of brilliant, because an ear for comedy is just as demonstrable as an ear for music, and its absence, even the degree and wattage of its presence, is unmistakable. Which brings us to this review:
The trouble starts with the opening moments of The Glorious Ones, when the delicate tone of Stephen Flaherty's music and the ethereal "cast your mind back to a distant time" invitation of Lynn Ahrens' book and lyrics is given to the audience—because right then begins the dawning realization that the show isn't going to be funny. Oh, it'll have its occasional laughs, most of them in audience pockets throughout the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, but few if any from the belly, or universally shared throughout the auditorium, and never in a row consistently for any stretch of time. The show will be clever and literate and well meaning, yes, but funny?—Forum funny, Producers funny, Neil Simon funny, Moliere funny, Kaufman and Hart funny, Abe Burrows funny?—not for a moment. And why is this a problem?
Because The Glorious Ones, based on what just has to be a more amusing novel by Francine Prose, purports to be a tale about the Commedia del'Arte troupe that codified, refined and made famous the conventions of the form, including exaggerated stock characters, improvised dialogue and bawdy vulgarity. I know this because the musical tells me this.
But because the musical never shows nor demonstrates this, what I also know is that I'm being lied to.
Okay, pause: No one who writes musicals well or even cares to, no one aspires to be fraudulent. Indeed, forget about why would they, how would they? No one sets out to screw up on purpose. Indeed, while being interviewed, William Goldman said—I'm paraphrasing for not having the exact quote at hand, but the meaning is precise—Despite being lauded by students and aficionados, none of us really knows what we're doing. If we did, we'd get it right all the time. A colleague of mine suggests this kind of misfire, from people who would seem to be more self-aware—and Ahrens and Flaherty are capable of high brilliance—has something to do with the desire we sometimes have to explore the muse outside our perhaps only self-imposed limitations, to reach for something against type, to prove that we can do it, to stretch our personal envelope, to widen the pallet—like the classic example of the stand up comic who wants to play Lear. Though with dramatists it may not be so cut and dried, certainly not with musical dramatists. There's a lot of romance implicit in a story like The Glorious Ones, by which I mean Capital R Romance: the thrill of the period, the excitement of watching the birth pangs of a comedic art form that will insinuate its way into comedy centuries on and seemingly forevermore. You get attracted to those people, their passions, and why not? So you crawl into their heads, to see the world from their perspective, as you must in order to dramatize them, make them sing.
And that's where the disjunct happens.
Because that's where your own reflex takes over. You don't really see through their eyes. You see what you imagine their eyes see. At least, that's what happens when you don't share the vocabulary as a natural extension of your own. Thus with the best of intentions, you apply the wrong filter. And then you ally with people who support that filter, because theirs is similarly mismatched, such as that of Graciela Daniele, an enormously gifted director-choreographer who is known for movement, and a lyrical touch that has put her on the short list for any number of art house, intimate and experimental musicals, such as Hello Again and Once on This Island, but who has never been particularly noted for edge.
Pause ends: And with the deepest respect, I must assert that, as an audience member, understanding the process doesn't help me a whit. I can't make it my problem. My problem is—
—that I'm having to endure a score that is delicate and sensitive when I'm being told I'm watching something raucous—
—that I'm watching a cast of seven, only one of whom, John Kassir, is innately funny (I don't mean he's the only one with a sense of humor, they all seem to have that, but it doesnÕt rescue them—a sense of humor is about your capacity to laugh, being funny is about the ability to make others laugh—I mean Kassir is the only genuine comic up there, the only one who lives in The Funny Place)—
—that when the troupe leading man and manager Flamino (Marc Kudisch) is scouting for talent, he comes upon a young woman described to us as, not only funny, but a dwarf who is gloriously ugly; and what I'm seeing instead is a woman of Asian extraction who is merely short, and to boot, perfectly adorable (Julyana Soelistyo)—
—that as the power of improvisation is being extolled, IÕm watching routines, bits and excerpts performed by the troupe that seem meticulously scripted and memorized—
—that the lack of boffo humor, the inauthenticity of tone, the being told one thing when something else is clearly evident, is the fizzless undercurrent that runs throughout almost every moment of the show (save for those few when Kasir is front and center)—
—and thus I believe nothing. And the primary rule of comedy, the rule above all others, is that somehow, somewhere, it has to be rooted in truth.
And indeed the truth of this observation was compounded by the telling experience of my going home, flipping on the DVR and seeing the South Park episode in which Stan's father gets into a competition in which the goal is to take the biggest dump on record. It's not simply that the scatological humor was miles more outrageous than anything in The Glorious Ones (which has a share of tame poop and sex jokes that seem a little labored and obligatory); it's that the competition proved a diabolically clever send-up of male rituals, one-upsmanship and even gender politics (i.e. the stuff men obsess about that women "just don't get"). This demonstration of a poop joke—an attenuated poop joke at that—being both screamingly funny AND a layered social metaphor is much closer to the spirit of Commedia del'arte than anything alluded to on that downstairs stage at Lincoln Center. Because, of course, that's what such vulgarity is all about at its, pardon the expression, best: shattering sacred cows and putting society into perspective. And isn't that what a musical about Commedia del'arte should be doing too?
Granted, The Glorious Ones aspires to do so much more than merely create laughter. It means to examine the plight of the actor, the issue of pure artistic vision vs. political/commercial sellout, the time and place and atmosphere and (***yawn****)
In the words of comedian Phil Foster to his writers: Wake me when it's funny.