Starting with the very best ingredients does not guarantee the success of a theatrical adaptation. Consider the checkered history of "Cyrano de Bergerac" as a stage musical. The crashing thunder of full orchestra sadly curdles the delicate fragrance that distinguishes Edmond Rostand's original play.
Writer Bradley Greenwald and composer Robert Elhai have approached the challenge of bringing music to Cyrano with a different tack in "C.," which had its premiere Saturday in a Theater Latté Da production at the Ritz Theater.
Greenwald and Elhai rarely allow the music to trample on Cyrano's bravado, his fragile insecurity and his self sacrifice. Melody and instrument are unmistakably there but they express themselves in a solo fife, a guitar, a piano, a small combo, bass line or an a cappella voice. Rare for a musical, the song seems an essential part of the action.
In fashioning music that springs from the life of the play, Greenwald and Elhai manage a small triumph in elevating the poetry while retaining the enduring charm, honesty and nobility of Cyrano's story. The finest illustration is the lovely and famous balcony scene in which Cyrano, hidden by the night, expresses his love for Roxane. Greenwald's lyrics sit perfectly on the meter of Elhai's eclectic and always tuneful score.
Greenwald also portrays the hero in director Peter Rothstein's ambitious production. The show seemed a bit unsure as it opened Saturday but found its rhythm shortly. Greenwald's interpretation of Cyrano has less of the robust bluster and winking confidence that some actors have used to define the man. He is more human, a vulnerable outsider who even in swagger shows a psyche damaged by the weight of carrying around that preposterous nose.
Kendall Anne Thompson is fine, with a lyrical soprano voice, as Roxane, the woman Cyrano has long loved. David Darrow plays Christian, the handsome young man for whom Roxane has fallen. Darrow finds rich humor in Christian's transparency as a dunce, his comfort as a simpleton — the perfect id contrast to Cyrano's ego.
Rothstein's production looks great on Jim Smart's set of a rustic French village. Costumer Rich Hamson works in a palette of earth tones that reflect Marcus Dilliard's dusty lights with a constant sepia effect.
On two occasions, the music's good intentions interfere with the words in this excellent production. In Cyrano's initial duel with Senator DeWhite (John Middleton, with the right tone of pomposity and dry menace), we struggle to hear the full throat of his poetic elan. Then again at play's end, when Cyrano reads one last letter to Roxane, an offstage chorus sings. As lovely as this evensong is, it competes with Cyrano's reading — which in some respects is the emotional zenith of this play. Something to think about.
Greenwald and Elhai have taken an exquisite approach to this old story. Rothstein has made it fill the stage, with Jason Hansen directing the music, and a cast that is full of good voice and lively spirit. The classic work is honored.