Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano" has never needed music. It has its own. Cyrano's long, imaginative speech about his nose and the speech defending his integrity are like arias. The opening scene, with the bustle of people arriving at a theater, is like a Mozartian ensemble number.
To make a musical, you have to improve on Rostand. So far, no one has. The latest attempt is Dutch, though the score echoes those of Boublil and Schonberg ("Les Miserables") in being quasi-operatic, quasi-rock, quasi-this, quasi-that. Although richly orchestrated, it has no sharpness, no drive.
The lyrics have been translated by a variety of hands. Some are delightful ("An apple, dear madame/ 's what Eve gave to Adam..."). Others are embarrassing ("You said it very nicely/ In fact you've said it thricely").
To accommodate this turgid score, the play itself has been eviscerated.
The fourth act, in which Roxane breaks through enemy lines to see her lover, Christian, is hard to swallow even in the original. It is quite absurd when everything is sung. ("You've broken the blockade, but how?/ "I said I've gotta see my sweetheart now.")
The performances are limited by the material. The Dutch actor Bill Van Dijk is certainly an engaging Cyrano. His English is without accent, but I would rather have heard him do the actual play than this uninvolving adaptation. Anne Runolfsson and Paul Anthony Stewart are strong as the young lovers, Ed Dixon and Timothy Nolen solid as the poetic baker and the villian.
Though the sets are rudimentary, Yan Tax' costumes are sumptuously beautiful and Reiner Tweebeeke's lighting is breathtakingly painterly and dramatic.
The show moves briskly under Eddy Habbema's direction, and the battle scene late in the second act is a splendid bit of stagecraft.
All in all, however, this "Cyrano" makes the long-forgotten 1973 Broadway musical look masterly.
Towards the very end of "Cyrano - The Musical," which opened last night at the Neil Simon Theater, a giggle of cavorting nuns sing a little ditty to the effect that: "Cyrano is fun for nuns."
I trust the nuns arrive at the box office in holy hordes and coach-loads, but how much fun "Cyrano" is for Broadway's non-nuns seems a more questionable question.
This Dutch musicalization of the 19-century French classic (delivered by a veritable tribe of Van Dijks all unrelated by blood) is indeed rather more fun than one might have feared. And as the eponymous hero, the strong-voiced Bill Van Dijk, is absolutely terrific, swashing and buckling like a radiant Errol Flynn with a nose job.
It is remarkable how Rostand's 1897 romantic play has held its own on the world's stage. Indeed, it has been made into an opera, a ballet by Roland Petit, and, before this newcomer, at least two musicals, the second of which won Christopher Plummer a Tony Award in 1974.
Rostand's romantic triangle of a woman, Roxane, and two men, Cyrano and Christian, one thinking himself too ugly to be loved and the other fearing himself too stupid, became an instant classic. It is suffused with concepts of honor and gallantry summed up by the plume on Cyrano's hat, his celebrate panache.
The play's big scenes - the opening duel, the best-known balcony encounter outside Shakespeare (even if partly cribbed from Mozart), the battle of Arras, and the final autumnal threnody in the Convent grounds when Roxane discovers the dying Cyrano wrote the love letters that once won her "soul" - these are the very stuff of theater.
Something of this magic will emerge in any "Cyrano," however inept, and something does even from this musical version, a modestly pedestrian far-from-flying Dutchman. But probably - except for those jolly nuns - not enough.
The music by Ad Van Dijk is half-okay (well, a quarter) in a synthetically Claude-Michel ("Les Miserables") Schonberg fashion, but seriously lacks that Schonbergian melodic self-confidence.
As for the book and lyrics by Koen Van Dijk - well, Brooks Atkinson once unkindly characterized the play as "cloak-and-doggerel" and certainly doggerel aptly describes the lyrics as Englished by Peter Reeves.
Most of the performances are good without being electrifying - Anne Runolfsson (Roxane), Paul Anthony Stewart (Christian) and Timothy Nolen (De Guiche) are credible and creditable - with the sold exception of that Van Dijk (Bill) who plays Cyrano, abundantly making up in passion and humor what he might lack in poetry.
This is a performance of - yes, magnificently - panache. But in this frail context it could prove little more than chutzpah.
Credit the many people involved in turning "Cyrano de Bergerac" from a lyrical, swashbuckling French play into a Dutch musical into a $7 million English-language musical with at least one success: its plot is as easy to follow as a synopsis laid out in Cliffs Notes.
Indeed, for all its technologically sophisticated sets and elaborately orchestrated score, "Cyrano: The Musical," which opened last night at the Neil Simon Theater, comes across as a lavishly illustrated study guide, with many helpful, cipherlike characters in sumptuous historical costumes taking pains to explain who they are and what they're doing. It is not unusual for songs to include phrases like "But let me tell you what happened yesterday" or "Roxane, so you're still here. It must be seven years."
Now such clarity of exposition may be a virtue. But it doesn't leave much room for the rhapsodic infatuation with words that was at the heart of Edmond Rostand's 1898 masterpiece of theatrical hokum and was the very lifeblood of its title character, the long-beaked, poetic-souled chevalier of 17th-century Paris.
Even though the lines are almost entirely sung (this "Cyrano" is more a pop-operetta than a conventional musical), so many of them are devoted to expositional recitative that the entire work feels closer to textbook prose than poetry. As directed by Eddy Habbema (who also staged the production in Amsterdam, to great success), it is a fairly efficient piece of storytelling. But it seldom gets much closer to Rostand's heady flights of rodomontade and romanticism, or truly felt emotions, than an entry in a reader's encyclopedia.
Don't put too much blame on Bill Van Dijk, the Dutch actor who created the title part in the original version and stars again here. He is a likable and charming performer, who sings in English with a clarion voice and un-self-conscious fluency. But he lacks the titanic presence of a character who has created, through flamboyantly heroic words and gestures, an outsized aura commensurate to the size of his legendary nose.
In his dueling scenes, Mr. Van Dijk is scrappy but curiously inept. And, urging his fellow soldiers on to glory through death in the play's climactic battle scenes, he seems more like a spunky mascot than a charismatic leader.
The biggest problem, however, in raising this Cyrano into the theatrical empyrean where he belongs lies not with Mr. Van Dijk but with the show's lyricists: Koen Van Dijk, who wrote the original book and score in Dutch; Peter Reeves, its English lyricist, and the Broadway veteran Sheldon Harnick, who is credited with "additional lyrics." (Just to get this out of the way, the show's composer is Ad Van Dijk, and none of these Van Dijks are related.)
The writers have been unable to find a way of translating the bravura linguistic arias Rostand gave his title hero with any comparable flair. The most famous of them, in which Cyrano offers 19 stylistic variations on ways to make fun of his nose here shrivels into a limp succession of rhymes -- "a snorer or a borer or an odor explorer," for example -- that are hardly the stuff of verbal pyrotechnics. Most of the lyrics, actually, are simply functional and as unquotable as recipes.
Most of Cyrano's grand gestures, both physical and verbal, tend to get lost amid the truly spectacular multiple changes of Baroque-flavored scenery by Paul Gallis (often achieved with the gasp-inducing use of hydraulic lifts) and the successive ensemble scenes of crowds in opulent period costumes by Yan Tax. These grandiose set pieces keep coming at us so rapidly and dazzlingly that they don't really have a chance to establish their reason to be. And some of them, like an unbearably cute dancing-nun sequence in the convent to which Roxane has retired at the play's end, should have been scrapped long ago.
Ad Van Dijk's music, which recalls the mechanically propulsive score of "Les Miserables," keeps the plot marching, marching, marching along at a military clip, with suspenseful shadings of orchestral dissonance in the background. For the scenes involving the triangular love story between Cyrano, his beautiful cousin Roxane (Anne Runolfsson) and the handsome but inarticulate Christian (Paul Anthony Stewart), for whom Cyrano provides the words to court the woman both men love, the music shifts into a romantic pop tunefulness that suggests the ballads from the Disney cartoon fantasies "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin."
The famous balcony scene, in which Cyrano plays eloquent prompt-master to the tongue-tied Christian, still retains vestiges of its comic poignancy. But, for the most part, the characters have all the individualized vividness of figures in a history pageant.
The principals generally sing pleasantly and cleanly, although the amplification system sometimes makes it difficult to tell who is singing what. Ms. Runolfsson has a flexible voice that shifts, with crowd-pleasing virtuosity, between ethereal melodiousness and piercing big-moment resonance. She is a curiously stalwart Roxane, more at home visiting the lines of battle than in the misty tableaux that place her on a platform against a full moon, where she looks like Glenda the Good Witch in "The Wizard of Oz."
That round, melancholy moon hovers symbolically over much of the evening. In one of the more memorable scenes from the original, Cyrano actually pretends to be a visitor from the moon, who expatiates whimsically on his travels through the stars.
In a way, of course, Cyrano is from the moon, from a realm of vaulting fancy that disdains the paltriness and mediocrity of the society in which he finds himself. In this new version, that kinship is absent. Cyrano sees the moon as a distant, omniscient watcher who looks down on him with a "cold objective eye." He actually tells it, "Yes, I know you perceive the reason why I can never tell Roxane what she means to me."
Clearly, this "Cyrano" and its title character will always be grounded on the earth.
Sirrah, no! Many indignities have been heaped upon the large-nosed, little-loved hero of Edmond Rostand's 1897 weeper, but "Cyrano: The Musical" buries them all in a thundering mishmash of unspectacular spectacle, non-musical music and anti-romantic romance. It may pass muster with some of the seasonal tourist trade, but after that, it's a goner.
From the first blaring notes of its prologue to the final relatively quiet moment, this Dutch import buckles repeatedly under the weight of its endlessly assaultive swash. It's easy to see why songwriting teams have been attracted to the story of the brilliant but scorned Cyrano (Bill van Dijk), who channels his unrequited love for beautiful cousin Roxane (Anne Runolffson) through the callow , shallow Christian (Paul Anthony Stewart) by lending him the gift of his poetry.
Against a backdrop of war in 17th-century France, it has a sense of humor, bristling sword fights, outrageous comeuppances, rhyming bakers and an ending that could break a heart of iron.
Several attempts to musicalize "Cyrano" have failed -- most recently a version by Anthony Burgess and Michael J. Lewis 20 years ago at the Palace -- and the reason is easy to discern: Great musicals make myths of their sources, and "Cyrano" may not be great art but its scale is operatic, as the authors of this latest version attest in a misguided opening number set at the Paris Opera.
Cyrano is outraged at the popular adulation of the preening tenor Montfleury (Mark Agnes), who has dared to ignore Cyrano's admonition against performing. Montfleury's screeching aria earns him a public denouncement from the hero.
Actually, Cyrano's words are, "I shall foreclose/on these ho, ho, ho's," which pretty well describes the level of lyric writing at play. Peter Reeves' translation from the Dutch has been abetted by Broadway veteran Sheldon Harnick, but in a script that demands cleverness as well as elegance, the lyrics are wooden and the rhymes not only fail to take flight, they have about them an air of desperation.
They certainly aren't helped by Ad van Dijk's music, which offers not a single memorable melody and comes in wave after wave of atonal, Eurowash sound.
Set designer Paul Gallis' stagecraft is equal parts overblown and preposterous. Never has so much hydraulic huffing and puffing unfolded to so little effect.
Some visual relief comes in Act 2, with the encampment at Arras, but it's offset by the ridiculous son et lumiere of the battle. Then comes the final scene in the nunnery, and here are, no kidding, the Prioress and her charges twirling about in their sexy habits, waiting for Cyrano's weekly visit because he's "tremendous fun for every nun."
For a story whose impact rests squarely on the final moment, in which Roxane realizes that the dying Cyrano is, after all, the author of Christian's love letters, the musical completely shortchanges the scene, all but obliterating Roxane's final line with noisy instrumentation made even worse by a terrible amplification system.
Bill van Dijk has had great success in this role in Europe, though it's impossible to know why. His nose looks like part of a Richard Nixon Halloween costume. More significantly, his face registers every emotion -- hope, despair, joy, anger, spiritual accommodation -- with the same look of blank terror.
As Roxane, Anne Runolffson has had much experience with this sort of music but she still can't make it appealing, and the book emphasizes the character's fecklessness, at some cost in terms of audience sympathy. Stewart is a complete cipher as Christian; he may as well not be there.
To be sure, some of producer Joop van den Ende's $ 7 million has been well-spent: The period costumes by Yan Tax are lavish and lovely, and the lighting by Reinier Tweebeeke lends considerable nuance to the atmosphere.
The backstage scene at the opera is well done, as is the one in the bakery. There are also some nice secondary performances, notably from the appropriately doughy Ed Dixon as the baker Ragueneau, and Timothy Nolen as the villain De Guiche. Mostly, however, "Cyrano: The Musical" is a trial. It makes you want to run home and rip your ears off.