If the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Cyrano de Bergerac," which swept into the Gershwin last night, isn't a match for the troupe's "Much Ado About Nothing," with which it is alternating, it's simply because Rostand, here filtered down through Anthony Burgess' new and eminently playable adaptation, is not Shakespeare. The two productions are equally impressive, each in its own way, and Derek Jacobi is as triumphant a Cyrano as he is a Benedick.
As a matter of fact, leaving aside for the moment everything else about these two grand achievements, it is the thrilling spectacle of watching an actor, Jacobi, at the top of his form that makes this RSC visit so exciting. He has fine support in key roles, as well as by almost everybody else in the large company, but the evening's special quality, in both instances, comes from watching Jacobi extend himself, exultantly but always with artistry. Why, good heavens! the man did both plays on Sunday, matinee and evening!
If I have any quarrel with Burgess' adaptation (he did the book for the ill-fated musical version several seasons back, too, you may remember), it lies in his refusal to cut away the dead wood. I have rejoiced in many productions of Rostand's romantic drama, especially Walter Hampden's and Jose Ferrer's, but I must admit that without the soaring poetry of a Shakespeare, the plot contrivances are inclined to creak and the sentiment to cloy.
But the play does have its great moments, the greatest of them, of course, being the third act balcony scene in which Cyrano, posing as the handsome but dumb Christian, woos the lovely Roxane for the other man. And then, of course, there's the famous first act theater duel, with Cyrano scoring easy points while composing a ballade that has him striking home on the very last line. And several other moments in which Rostand rises to the occasion by exploiting Cyrano's manliness, fighting skill, gift with words and, above all, his own celebrated panache.
Jacobi, wearing a false nose not quite as long as that of some of his predecessors and that lends him a slightly sinister look, might as well have the stage to himself, so fully in command is he. But there are other attractive performances in the enormous cast. The pretty Sinead Cusack, Beatrice to Jacobi's Benedick in the other work, brings a nice salty quality to bear on the basically insipid role of the fair Roxane, that precieuse so ripe for the ridicule of a Moliere, whose name, by the way, is dragged in as a plagiarist of some of Cyrano's best lines. John Carlisle is excellent as de Guiche, the villain softened in his twilight years sufficiently to express admiration for the dying Cyrano. John Bowe, as Le Bret, Cyrano's closest friend and Pete Postlethwaite as that genial pastry cook and poetaster Ragueneau, contribute other agreeable performances.
Terry Hands, who staged "Much Ado" so enchantingly, has marshaled his "Cyrano" forces with equal aplomb, while Ralph Koltai has contributed another reasonably simple scenic design (though the action, divided into two acts, is awkwardly interrupted following the battlefield scene as, curtains drawn and house lights up, there is a longish wait for the closing convent scene to be shuffled into place. Director Hands has again attended to the lighting, and effectively, though he might have insisted on a lighter smothering of battlefield smoke, which engulfed several rows of the orchestra, setting some spectators to coughing and waving their arms about.
See it. See them both. See and hear theater of a size and eloquence we may not encounter on Broadway again all season. They're here only through Dec. 12. What a shame. How they might have enriched the holiday season!
What a difference a play makes! Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, which only last week appeared unexpectedly stolid in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, last night, at the Gershwin Theater, took wing in Edmund Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.
Even more gratifying was the performance by the company's seasonal reigning star, Derek Jacobi. His cute, campfire portrayal of Shakespeare's Benedick forgotten, he blazed Cyrano, full of rocket rhetoric, impassioned panache and superbly decent sentiment.
This quite simply is a great Cyrano, and one of the biggest, most successfully rambunctious performances to be seen on Broadway in years. Here as the fantasticated soldier-poet, the gem of Gascony and the patron saint of timid lovers, Jacobi rides the theater as if it were a horse in battle. There is a monumental rightness here - the rightness of an actor claiming a classic role for his own.
Rostand's original play, dating from 1897 but sounding a good deal older, was flamboyantly neo-Romantic and written in suitably high-flown verse.
The story of the gallant Gascon who, believing himself irredeemably ugly because of his nose, woos vicariously the woman he really loves on behalf of a well-favored dolt, is foolish but deliciously sentimental. And as this moonshined tale enshrines a figure of almost legendary grace and folly (a minor Don Quixote taught fencing by D'Artagnan) the result is pure, explosive theater.
Anthony Burgess, who can write as windily as anyone around, has proved ideal for the translation, and Terry Hands has staged the play with epic virtuosity and a shrewd eye for spectacle.
Hands has a wonderfully economical way of handling the big gesture of crowds and battles - remember his RSC production of Henry V in Brooklyn nearly a decade ago - and here his touch never falters.
Ralph Koltai's scenery - more naturalistic than is his wont - both opens space and yet suggests place, here just the right combination, costumes have an unfailingly happy touch of Dumas and romance.
The performances are never less than adequate, although most of them are not all that much more. However, John Bowe's stalwart Le Bret and Pete Postlethwaite's sympathetic portrait of Ragueneau, the poet-loving pastry-cook, add dimension to the chiefly flat canvas.
The main weakness in the cast is John Carlisle's coarse De Guiche (I can still recall Alec Guinness in this part and the comparison is scarcely flattering), but Sinead Cusack - so spirited as Beatrice in the earlier play - is radiant more with intelligence than sheer beauty as the beloved Roxane, and this must be accounted a certain loss. The difficulty of playing Christian is of suggesting dullness with being dull, and it is a difficulty Tom Mannion never looks close to surmounting.
But the play is, must be, Cyrano - all the rest is setting and stuffing. And Jacobi rises to the occasion like trumpets at daybreak.
He is at his best in the role's mockingly stylish rodomontades, the shafts of fancy, the darts of imagination. He takes the audience into his confidence and his hand during the famous first act diatribe on his nose, and his grasp never slackens.
I have seen some fine Cyranos in my time - Christopher Plummer (in Burgess' musical), Stacy Keach and, best of all, Ralph Richardson - but no memory eclipses Jacobi. Yes, Keach had more fire, Plummer more poetry, and Richardson - well, at the end, white-faced, drained of passion, with only love surviving like a tremor, Richardson was unbeatable. But all in all, Jacobi is the English-speaking Cyrano since World War II.
It is a privilege to see and hear him hold forth - and to watch him hold court.
You're not going to spend the evening staring at Derek Jacobi's nose at the Royal Shakespeare Company's ''Cyrano de Bergerac.'' There's just too much else going on. In his beguiling presentation of Edmond Rostand's classic piece of hokum, the director Terry Hands fills the Gershwin's stage with teeming choruses of Parisian swells, smoky battlefield explosions and all the picture-book moonlight required to send us flying back to a lost romantic age. This is a ''Cyrano'' as outsized as grand opera - and, in Mr. Jacobi, it has its virtuoso soloist, the very exemplar of panache.
As Cyrano explains, panache is not merely the white plume in his hat - it's his ''visible soul.'' Mr. Jacobi is a slight man, and, even with his ''strawberry Punchinello nose,'' he has an almost anonymous face. But as the story of Cyrano's life is a triumph of radiant inner resources over a grotesque exterior, so Mr. Jacobi's performance makes mind, voice and heart soar over matter. The soul of his Cyrano - a noble amalgam of poetry and fire - floods every corner of the R.S.C.'s throbbing theatrical tapestry.
Cyrano, of course, is Rostand's nostalgic, late-19th-century fantasy version of a mid-17th-century paragon of honor and derring-do. ''I decided to excel in everything!,'' the hero explains. Poet and philosopher, swashbuckling swordsman and razor-sharp wit, he thinks nothing of composing rhymed couplets aloud even as he fights a deadly duel. Yet Cyrano always stands a nose away from achieving the one conquest he most wants. Too ugly to win his beloved Roxane (Sinead Cusack) for himself, he must settle instead for wooing her by proxy - by selflessly writing the love letters that she receives from her handsome, dimwitted heartthrob, Christian (Tom Mannion).
The high point of Mr. Jacobi's performance comes in the balcony scene, when Cyrano has his one chance to express his passion to Roxane in his own voice. Hiding in the shadows so that his goddess won't suspect that Christian speaks through a surrogate, Cyrano lets loose with an aria of longing. His poetry makes its recipient tremble, and no wonder. The ecstatic lines erupt through Mr. Jacobi's trim frame in wave after rising wave, as if Cyrano's spirit were willing itself to leap to the window where his body can never go.
When the actor repeatedly incants the words ''love'' and ''Roxane,'' his voice reaches a shuddering, erotic pitch - but with a dying fall. He's all too sadly aware that consummation is forever to be denied. As Christian climbs up to claim the kiss that Cyrano has won, Mr. Jacobi brings a black ironic chill to the line, ''It's my words she kisses, and not his lips - there is cause to be cheerful there.''
It's no surprise that the actor handles the role's other aspects with flair. The withering sarcasm of his Benedick in the R.S.C.'s ''Much Ado About Nothing'' is turned up to bombastic force here - from his first entrance, when Cyrano contemptuously chases a ham actor off a Parisian stage. It is no less a treat to watch the swaggering star raise his sword to heaven to lead the Gascon cadets into battle at Arras.
Even more important is Mr. Jacobi's ability to make us believe that Cyrano is the purest truth-sayer who ever lived - a man of inviolate principle who, at the price of being an outcast, will challenge authority, received ideas and fashion to preserve his integrity of thought and action. Though Cyrano can win a single-handed victory over a hundred antagonists in a sword fight, it's more stirring still that he fights ''for far more than the hope of winning.'' When Mr. Jacobi announces that he tilts at windmills in order to reach ''up to the stars,'' his chivalric fervor is both inspiring and a little mad.
''Cyrano de Bergerac'' is sentimental and melodramatic, but those qualities don't infect its star performance. Mr. Jacobi's softness is never spineless. In his staging, Mr. Hands is no less mindful of the pitfalls that could derail a play in which almost every event is incredible, every scene a parade of dramatic hyperbole. A few wrong notes and ''Cyrano de Bergerac'' could become this year's Mel Brooks parody.
But Mr. Hands has perfect pitch. This director's virtuosity is as impressive as his star's. Though the actors and design team are the same, ''Cyrano'' has nothing in common with its repertory companion piece. Mr. Hands's reading of Rostand is as emphatic and muscular as his ''Much Ado'' is airy and delicate.
Whether he's choreographing the opening mob scene in a ghostly, garish Hotel de Bourgogne (in which even Dumas's D'Artagnan makes a cameo appearance) or making Roxane's gilded fairy-tale coach materialize in a tattered camp of starving soldiers, the director has a sure grip on the son-et-lumiere spectacles that make ''Cyrano'' ascend. It's only in the intimate convent epilogue, where the final emotional crescendo should come, that the show loses its battle with the cavernous Gershwin. As partial compensation, there is a huge autumnal chestnut tree that, as designed by Ralph Koltai and lighted by Mr. Hands, seems to give us a glimpse of a burning eternity.
The director is aided throughout by Anthony Burgess's ingenious translation, which serves Rostand's wit while adding a few fillips of its own (''Oh that this too too solid nose would melt,'' goes one interpolation). Preserving rhyme but minimizing the heroic couplets, Mr. Burgess easily surpasses the ''Cyrano'' libretto he wrote a decade ago for a Broadway musical adaptation; at times his highly playable verse rivals Richard Wilbur's translations of Moliere.
The large supporting cast doesn't squander a line. Miss Cusack does all that can be done with Roxane, a silly, syrupy debutante who isn't worthy of anyone's love until the play's conclusion. Mr. Mannion finds humor and appealing honesty in the empty-headed pretty boy Christian, and Pete Postlethwaite conveys both the big heart and antic mind of Ragueneau, the pastry cook who would rather be a poet. John Carlisle, an uncommonly devilish villain in ''Much Ado,'' moves from high comedy to serene pathos as Cyrano's nemesis, the pompous, cowardly aristocrat de Guiche.
The evening is very long - well over three hours - and not all of it is priceless. Yet somehow the excessive length seems part of the point in a production that champions theatrical extravagance as its own reward. If Rostand's drama lacks ideas, psychological depth or logic, Mr. Hands and Mr. Jacobi demonstrate that it has other qualities that could only flourish in the theater. At the R.S.C.'s ''Cyrano,'' we're reminded that plays need not replicate literature or the real world to thrill us. Plain old-fashioned stage magic can still have its own panache.