At first blush, the idea of making a musical from the bones of "Roman Holiday" seems so creaky. The movie is 60 years old; Cole Porter has been in the ground for nearly 50. And how in the name of Kate Middleton do we accept a princess bound by dynastic rules?
Yes, "Roman Holiday" is old, but as the new musical that opened at the Guthrie on Friday ably demonstrates, "old" can be "timeless." This fragile confection is built with elegance and sophistication around the idea that here we have a fairy tale about escape and impossible love. And try as we might -- in our edgy hauteur -- we cannot help but appreciate the sleek nostalgia wrapped in a love story. So sue me, I'm sentimental.
Work remains to be done if this show is to meet adapter Paul Blake's greater ambitions. It lumbers out of the gate with a too-literal video sequence showing fictional Princess Anne (Stephanie Rothenberg) jetting about the capitals of Europe. It bogs down, such as the static and seemingly endless first-act cafe scene after the princess has escaped her duties to frolic with American commoner Joe Bradley (Edward Watts). And on opening night, the timing and pace needed a nip and tuck -- to shake a slightly musty "Playhouse 90" atmosphere.
But what a dramatic accomplishment, to take the film's story, tweak it slightly, and add a trove of Porter songs that sound as if they were written intentionally for this show. Blake and director John Miller-Stephany find perfect resonance in the lyrics and mood of "Night and Day," "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" and "Experiment." Each piece of Porter's music -- including reprises and fragments -- advances the tale.
As all old-fashioned book musicals do, "Roman Holiday" has that effervescent secondary character who distracts us from the charming but slightly bland romantic leads. Christina Baldwin steals every scene she is in as cabaret singer Francesca Scabulo. The putative inamorata of Joe's photographer friend Irving (Jim Stanek), Francesca sashays her outlandish personality and operatic voice through the scenery with relish. Baldwin makes delicious work of "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love" and "Just One of Those Things."
Miller-Stephany has wrought a cohesive universe reflecting the 1950s era. Mathew LeFebvre's Dior dresses and cut suits look great; the orchestrations by Larry Blank and Doug Besterman play up the horns and woodwinds with nary a guitar in sight. Todd Rosenthal's set is less instantly evocative, but his rendering of the Trevi Fountain is a masterpiece of craft. Alex Sanchez's choreography has the lines and storytelling of "West Side Story."
So, about this "old" issue. Television's hottest show ("Mad Men") reeks with retro chic; "Anything Goes" and "Harvey" are currently playing Broadway; Frank Sinatra, a man of tuxedos and dry martinis, remains the epitome of cool. "Roman Holiday" embraces its era, yet aspires to emotions and narratives that endure. If that sounds old, so be it. I think it sounds sort of romantic.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299