Sometimes, in the theater, it is the lightest things that last the longest. Some 250 years ago, the smartest people sneered at Pierre de Marivaux. They said his comic plays about love were like "weighing flies' eggs in scales of gossamer." But, as this musical version of his "Triumph of Love" so delightfully demonstrates, funny love stories will be around for as long as romance and laughter stay in fashion.
At one level, admittedly, making a musical out of Marivaux is like pouring rich chocolate over a low-fat muffin, or lacing a nonalcohol beer with a dash of rum. It seems to miss the point. Marivaux was famous for taking the songs and the spectacle out of the comic theater. He replaced them with graceful, elegant and subtle explorations of human feelings.
This show reverses the process. As an examination of the struggle between the heart and the head, it is about as subtle as a Tom and Jerry cartoon. It shouldn't really work. But it does, largely because director Michael Mayer takes the virtues of a good cartoon and runs with them all the way. It is animated, colorful, fast and very funny. It has the charm of a fairy tale and the knockabout humor of a slightly bawdy romp. And this cartoonish quality is underlined by Heidi Ettinger's bright, cutout sets, Catherine Zuber's exuberant costumes and Doug Varone's jerky, playful choreography.
This kind of irreverent updating is possible because the original play has an oddly 20th-century feel. The deliciously absurd plot is perhaps Marivaux' answer to his own critics. In telling the story of how two ferocious philosophers become fools for love, it mocks some attitudes that are still with us. F. Murray Abraham's Hermocrates and Betty Buckley's Hesione may be set in a fairy-tale version of ancient Greece, but their scientific obsessions are even worthier targets for satire now.
Meanwhile, Susan Egan's Leonide, the sassy princess who comes to seduce their student Agis (played by Christoper Sieber), is a feminist long before the word was invented. Egan, who originated the role of Belle in "Beauty and the Beast," now gets to play a gender-bending young woman who dominates the action, controls the plot and makes everyone weak at the knees. She revels in the role.
All of this relentless wackiness might begin to grate, though, were it not for the wonderful Betty Buckley. Only a great performer can switch the mood of a show in a moment, turning burlesque into tragedy and then back again. Buckley belongs in that select company. Her pure, hard-edged voice cuts against the grain of Jeffrey Stock's cheery music. And in the show's one outstanding musical number "Serenity" she suddenly becomes, not the comic caricature she has been, but a real, lonely middle-aged woman yearning for love.
With a lesser actress, the effect would be jarring. It is, instead, startling and moving. And it provides the essential grip on emotional realities that stops the gaudy balloon of the plot from floating away into mere insignificance.
Her presence is all the more important because, most of the time, Stock's music isn't as light on its feet as the other elements of the show. The composer sometimes seems more intent on demonstrating his mastery of the familiar Broadway forms than on adding to them. Here, as elsewhere, there is seldom a convincing answer to the question that hangs over the Broadway musical: Can the music match the inventiveness of the other elements?
Happily, though, the performances, the movement and the enchantment of the storytelling provide enough immediate pleasure to keep that question at bay. While the musical searches for its future, "Triumph of Love" shows that there's still a lot of fun to be extracted from theater's past.
You enter the theater and the stage is virtually drenched in the cascade of a gold satin curtain. Your appetite thus whetted, you sit back, waiting for a banquet. Well, banquet perhaps it is not, but at least it's a lot more feast than famine.
It must be frighteningly difficult to write a musical - what do you do for music, for a start? – and although Broadway's latest entrant, "Triumph of Love," which opened at the Royale Theater last night, may be something less than a triumph, it has solid and substantial merits, and many, many people will love it.
It has all the makings of a cult musical. Its immediate success depends entirely on how quickly the cult catches on, for it is a show easier to love - or, at least, to like a lot - than to admire, especially for the totally enchanting Susan Egan as its ruthless but adorable heroine.
Ruthless? Egan? The unmelted-butter-mouthed Belle of "Beauty and the Beast"?
Well, one of the show's pluses is the spectacle of its stars behaving unexpectedly but exceptionally well. More on the performances later, but from top to toe, each is gemlike.
First, though, let's deal with Jeffrey Stock's music, behaving not unexpectedly a little like Stephen Sondheim's; and the story, devised by book-writer James Magruder, seeming a little like French playwright Pierre Marivaux. Well, forget Marivaux - after all, the musical itself almost has.
Strangely enough, it was 18th-century Marivaux, Magruder's adaptation of his original play and Michael Mayer's off-Broadway staging of same at the Classic Stage Company repertory that sparked the whole plan for the current enterprise.
Magruder sticks to the marivaudage of the original story, with its typical psychological cynicism, and all the plot mechanisms of disguise and chicanery Marivaux pinched from the commedia dell'arte.
Thus, the story of an enamored but wrongful princess who woos the sheltered rightful prince, brought up in solitude by his philosopher uncle and aunt with a view to him regaining his kingdom, has been left pretty much alone.
The style has admittedly been bastardized and vulgarized for Broadway musical audiences, although it has the best closing line – exquisitely handled by Betty Buckley - I can ever recall in the musical theater.
Elsewhere, though, camp anachronisms and lame, intentionally bad puns abound in Magruder's script and, to a lesser extent, in Susan Birkenhead's generally deft lyrics.
As for Stock's music: Yes, it does sound like fairly stock Sondheim. Just as the admirable but imitatable George Handel had a disastrous effect on English music for more than a century, so Sondheim seems to be wreaking the same damage on the Broadway musical. But this is higher sub-Sondheim than most.
Meyer's staging is boisterous and stylish; Catherine Zuber's costumes are elegantly attuned to place, period and musical; and while Paul Gallo's lights seems a little by rote, the permanent topiary joke of the garden setting by Heidi Ettinger has its charms (although it outstays its welcome).
Perhaps the major thing the musical has going for it are the opportunities it offers for performance, and these are joyously seized by the chamber-styled cast of seven. A magnificent seven, at that.
For the delectable Egan, the show could be a starmaker, while Buckley (adorably prissy but in full voice) and a commandingly priggish F. Murray Abraham have never been better. Both are so convincingly moving that at times they threaten to capsize the comic boat.
Christopher Sieber contributes an endearing chump of a hero, while the clowns - Roger Bart, Kevin Chamberlain and Nancy Opel, sometimes with a shrewd assist from Doug Varone's unobtrusive choreography - prove show-biz joys.
This is not your common or garden-variety Broadway musical - but it has abundant and luxuriant charms.
Something shocking happens toward the end of the endless-seeming first act of ''Triumph of Love,'' the new musical that opened last night at the Royale Theater. By that time, if you're lucky, your feelings have graduated from irritation to numbness before the flat-footed parade of raunchy double-entendres and double takes that give new meaning to the phrase ''low comedy.'' How many botanical puns about sex organs can you take, after all, before your theatergoer's response system shuts down in self-defense?
And then, against all expectation, lightning strikes. Your emotions are stirred, you sit up in your seat and you may even discover tears in your eyes. In any case, if you're human, you'll probably find yourself delivering a silent prayer of thanksgiving for Betty Buckley, that fine musical star whose penetrating trumpet of a voice always seems directly and paradoxically linked to a fragile soul.
What has happened is that Ms. Buckley, playing an emotionally suffocated spinster named Hesione in this adaptation of Marivaux's philosophical, fairy-tale comedy from 1732, starts singing a song with the deceptive title of ''Serenity.'' She is addressing a young man who has aroused feelings in her that have been dormant for decades, feelings that once tugged ''at my heart like hungry birds.'' The young man responsible for this awakening is really a young woman (played by Susan Egan) who is duping Hesione for her own romantic reasons, but that no longer seems like a merely comic plot contrivance. ''Serenity,'' with a music-box lilt of a melody by Jeffrey Stock and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, is a lovely piece of confession that recalls the melancholy, character-defining songs of Stephen Sondheim's ''Little Night Music.''
As delivered by Ms. Buckley with a strength that also suggests an infinite capacity to be wounded, the number sheds a disquieting light on the forced, boisterous merriment that has preceded it. The elaborate plot to ensnare Hesione may be a form of sport, but it is now clear that this sport draws blood. The moment captures the delicate blend of froth and contemplative sadness that imbues nearly everything by Marivaux, a playwright from the Age of Reason who suggests the theatrical equivalent of the quieter paintings of Watteau.
The scene is poignant in more ways than one. It says that there really is a first-rate musical to be made of ''Triumph of Love,'' and that Mr. Stock and Ms. Birkenhead have the talent to capture the play's gossamer ambiguity. (Further evidence is offered in the second act by another song in a similar vein, a duet sung by Ms. Buckley and F. Murray Abraham as Hesione's starchy, philosophe brother.) But most of the show, which has a book by James Magruder and has been directed by Michael Mayer, is anything but fine-spun. ''Triumph'' is largely propelled by a crude, anything-for-a-laugh avidity that brings to mind such vestigial vaudeville shows as ''Hellzapoppin.' '' Heidi Ettinger's wonderfully inventive set, a metamorphosing rococo maze rendered in green terry cloth, does indeed shimmer with theatrical wit. But 10 minutes into the production, it's obvious that little else, Ms. Buckley aside, is going to rise to that level.
This is a show in which the performers have been encouraged to swivel their gazes sharply into the audience to punctuate each punch line. There's no answering from a vaudeville-style clash of cymbals, but there might as well be.
Words like intercourse cannot be spoken without inviting the sort of titters associated with grade-school students who have just learned the facts of life. The double-meaning references to such bucolic things as tubers, baskets, peaches and melons are too many to be enumerated. And when a lusty wench of a serving maid, played by Nancy Opel, decides to get it on with the play's obligatory Harlequin (Roger Bart), she announces to the audience with open-mouthed glee, ''Guess it's time for a harlequin romance!''
This sophomoric lewdness and broad jokiness are not entirely without reason. Marivaux originally wrote ''Triumph of Love,'' like many other of his plays, specifically to be performed by an Italian commedia dell'arte troupe working in Paris. And it appears to have been the intention of Mr. Mayer and Mr. Magruder to create a latter-day equivalent to the commedia style, with its sense of wily improvisation and expressive physical comedy.
This can be done, as contemporary clowns like Bill Irwin and David Shiner have demonstrated. But it requires a ballet master's sense of movement and hair-trigger timing, which Mr. Irwin provided in his revisionist ''Scapin'' last season. Mr. Mayer and his performers provide scant evidence of those attributes. What is substituted are overstated visual jokes, occasionally witty but more often desperate-seeming, and what passes for repartee.
One example: Ms. Opel's character, who like Ms. Egan's is dressed as a man for most of the show, discloses her true sex to a randy gardener, played by Kevin Chamberlin. His response: ''How do I know you're not a gay deceiver?'' Her answer: ''How do I know you're organically grown?'' Mr. Chamberlin, for the record, is also given the line ''It's been a long time since I used my fertilizer.''
Granted, Marivaux's original text is laced with double-entendres, although of a very different order. And the plot is deliberately and wildly artificial. It is centered on the plucky Princess Leonide (Ms. Egan), who, accompanied by her maid, Corine (Ms. Opel), invades the philosophical hermitage presided over by Hemocrates (Mr. Abraham) and his sister Hesione. The Princess's object: to win the love of Hemocrates's pupil, the handsome Agis (Christopher Sieber), who, it turns out, is the rightful heir to the Princess's throne and has been brought up to despise her.
The accomplishment of this scheme involves, in addition to donning drag, the enlisting of the sanctuary's comic servants (Mr. Bart and Mr. Chamberlin) and the seduction by Leonide of both the middle-aged siblings, who banned passion from their lives long ago. Marivaux's point is that the pursuit of love is a military exercise in which there are inevitably victims. And there's a somber shadow at the play's core.
The creators of this ''Triumph'' acknowledge this darker complexity. Ms. Egan has a long, rather tedious solo in which she wrestles with her conscience. But this production more often goes for the easier option of making Hemocrates and Hesione look ridiculous, and the laughs thus earned can be cheap.
Mr. Stock's music has bright moments throughout, including a nifty use of a ''Bolero''-like introductory refrain to suggest love's martial strife. And Mr. Bart and Mr. Chamberlin, who work as a sort of Laurel and Hardy tandem, have been given a charming duet called ''Henchmen Are Forgotten.'' Yet the score also shifts joltingly among different styles, evoking not only Sondheim, but also ''Grease!''
The seven cast members are more than competent, but they are ill served by Mr. Mayer's exclamation-point direction. Mr. Sieber's hunky, blockheaded prince brings to mind Dan Quayle at the podium. And Ms. Egan, the original Belle of Disney's Broadway ''Beauty and the Beast,'' brings an impressively polished set of musical comedy skills to her part, but little individual spark.
Mr. Abraham, not known as a self-effacing actor, here seems to be in steady retreat from his character. He is not a natural singer, and it is often hard to tell whether the embarrassment he registers belongs to the actor or the part. And when Hemocrates, undone by infatuation, shows up in popinjay regalia for the show's denouement, it is painful to the point of grotesquerie.
Ms. Buckley's character undergoes a similarly humiliating transformation. Yet somehow she not only endures, but also prevails. Even swinging the panniers of the cartoon period dresses that Catherine Zuber has designed for her, she retains a plaintive dignity. And while she earns every possible laugh, it is never at the expense of a fully developed character.
Ms. Buckley, the original Grizabella of ''Cats'' and the much-admired successor to Glenn Close in ''Sunset Boulevard,'' is the only thing triumphant in ''Triumph.'' For what it's worth, she definitely owns the show. But isn't it time someone gave her a more valuable piece of property all her own?
Broadway's Royale Theater is teeming with triumphs. By the end of the adorable new musical "Triumph of Love," so many small victories have been made that the show's early shortfalls are excused, if remembered at all. Modest in everything but talent and charm, this chamber-size comedy just might have the sass to take its place alongside the season's big-budget lions.
Certainly one of those victories belongs to director Michael Mayer, who makes an impressive Broadway debut by pulling together a note-perfect cast, witty book (by James Magruder) and a delightful score (by composer Jeffrey Stock and lyricist Susan Birkenhead). His careful balance of sincerity and irony is as fresh and improbable as the purple-and-green color scheme of the topiary set designed by Heidi Ettinger (formerly Landesman).
Adapted from Marivaux's 18th century French comedy, "Triumph" is a farceur's spin on the Greek tale of a princess's attempt to win the heart of a young philosophy student. Assuming various guises of both genders, the love-struck Princess Leonide (Susan Egan) sneaks into the stern, rigid domain of Sparta, the garden retreat of stern, rigid philosopher Hermocrates (F. Murray Abraham), his equally emotionless sister, Hesione (Betty Buckley), and their handsome nephew and student, Agis (Christopher Sieber).
Accompanied by her bawdy maid, Corine (Nancy Opel), and soon assisted by the Spartan clown/servants Harlequin (Roger Bart) and Dimas (Kevin Chamberlin), the princess must woo the naive student without revealing her true identity: The student is the true prince of the land, raised by his aunt and uncle with the sole intent of dethroning (and worse) the princess.
Melding a bright, comic-book style with a campy, irreverent wit, "Triumph" pulls off the hip fairy-tale tone that eluded last season's "Once Upon a Mattress." More surprisingly, the broad comedy seamlessly (and quite effectively) gives way to moments of real poignancy as the aging brother and sister (impeccably played by Abraham and Buckley) open their long-closed hearts to the dangers of love.
A primly coifed and bespectacled Buckley gives full voice to her character's vulnerability in the soaring number "Serenity," a lovely song that should become part of the singer's concert repertoire. Showcasing not only the performer's incomparable pipes, the song displays Birkenhead's disarming way with a lyric, clever and amusing rhymes gracefully presented.
"Serenity" is one of several high points of a somewhat uneven first act (Opel's comic "Mr. Right" and Abraham's "Emotions" are two others), with the complicated plot demanding stop-and-start exposition. The musical doesn't really develop its heart until intermission approaches, as the characters take on depth.
But a fast-moving second act quickly hits its stride with a Sondheim-esque duet between Abraham and Buckley ("The Tree"), never letting go through Egan's big solo ("What Have I Done?"), the servants' vaudeville song-and-dance ("Henchmen are Forgotten") and a final line of dialogue, expertly delivered by Buckley, that earns its laugh without sacrificing the pathos of an ending that remembers love's losers.
While Abraham doesn't have the vocal strength of his co-stars, he nonetheless commands the stage with a finely textured performance. Both he and, especially, Buckley, the most distinctive voice on Broadway, melt almost imperceptibly from dour to heartbreaking.
Egan, Tony-nominated for her perf in "Beauty and the Beast," here moves to the front ranks of musical actresses, sweet but strong and lending a distinct personality to each of the princess's various guises (including a whispery, Marilyn Monroe-like sexpot). The handsome Sieber keeps apace, putting a welcome comic spin on the familiar Prince Charming character.
The leads get terrific support from their servants, with Opel quite appealing as the sexually liberated maid, Chamberlin funny as the deadpan gardener and Bart, whose face and limbs must be made of Silly Putty, right on target as the devilish clown. All are fine singers, and dance well under Doug Varone's unobtrusive choreography.
Despite a relatively modest budget (less than $4 million), the musical has been given a very pretty physical production, rich in hues of violet and chartreuse. Catherine Zuber's fanciful Louis XIV period costumes, Paul Gallo's lush lighting and Ettinger's garden set (a maze of green blocks and wedges) are, like most else in "Triumph of Love," winners.