By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Undaunted, Theatre Three brings Triumph of Love to Dallas for a Southwest premiere, a few months after New Theatre Company hosted an English translation of Marivaux's script in the T3 basement Theatre Too. It's easy to see why lyricist Birkenhead and composer Jeffrey Stock latched onto the late French master's tale of a bold and, in the final analysis, rather cruel young princess who disguises herself as a boy and infiltrates the overstarched hearth of middle-aged, brother-and-sister classical scholars. She must thaw out their icy, overintellectual hearts through extravagant overtures of love and then, ultimately, stomp on them in pursuit of the duo's nephew, her true love and the rightful heir to the throne that the princess assumed by her father's bloody coup.
You can always count on director-designer Bruce Coleman to help kindle chemistry between actors and keep the proceedings chugging along amiably (although I couldn't help but wonder why he chose to "update" a show with Prohibition-era costumes when, in almost every other respect, it appears to be set in ancient Greece). He performs his dependable tricks in service to a curious and rather meager modern musical that blends the insistent sexual innuendo and physical capering of burlesque with the rather discomfiting sight of two arrogant intellectuals getting it in the teeth when they're finally enticed to drop life-long defenses. To alternate between cute and alarming is not quite the tango of mood that one assumes a musical of this airiness aspires, but the book and score seem to have trouble deciding what they want to accomplish with a tale that can be told in different voices and emotional shadings. As a result, they follow all whims with a dogged, not very relaxed need to please. Couple this with principal cast members whose voices don't seem up to the task of the score, and you have a Triumph of Love that feels pleased with itself all out of proportion to its virtues.
Lisa Gabrielle-Greene is all fresh-scrubbed determination and good cheer as Princess Leonide, but she slows down to reveal poignant regret and even a kind of numb horror when Hesione (Sally Soldo), the spinster aunt of her adored Agis (Joshua Judge), delivers the show's sad centerpiece number, "Serenity." Soldo's voice, by far the strongest in this cast, is as glorious as ever, and she mingles regret and newfound hope in her account of how an adolescent heartbreak led her to retreat into the song's title. Given the new (and wholly fallacious) romantic attentions of "Phocion" (that's the princess' male drag name), however, her life no longer seems quite so serene. The tenderness of the scene, heightened by Gabrielle-Greene's silent realization of what her devious campaign has wrought, stops your heart in your throat. It also leaves you a little restless and irritable when the manic tone resumes--with the heartbreaking exception of the number "Teach Me Not to Love You"--for the rest of the show.
Everyone in the cast supplies a chuckle or two eventually, but Joshua Judge as Agis, Jim Hines as the servant Harlequin, and Lorie J. Clark as Leonide's assistant Corine have voices that sometimes threaten to be lost in musical director Terry Dobson's live accompaniment. Their comic escapades are more successful, although even these eventually buckle under the humor's one-note leering quality. I like a naughty double entendre as much as the next rapscallion, but when they're lobbed as constantly and frenetically as they are here, you abandon saucy and clever and enter a certain Benny Hill pathology. Hermocrates telling a love-addled Agis that he should be off oiling his cannon is good for a chuckle. To have him repeat, practically moments later, that his nephew should be off sharpening his sword just makes you roll your eyes, because this is the umpteenth sexual pun in a show that seems to use them as filler between passages of emotional duplicity.
Some have argued that time will rescue the score to Triumph of Love and belatedly give its collection of songs a place beside the great stage musicals that aim to be about more than girl-gets-the-guy, ain't-love-grand showmanship. With the exceptions noted above, I felt that the writers shortchanged the kind of tangled feelings that Sondheim and Kander-Ebb champion for standard-issue musical-farce shenanigans. Theatre Three has always been unabashed in its desire to dispense audience-pleasing show-tune flourishes, but this time, its light-footed faithfulness to a script's disjointed rhythm takes us all over the floor, starting one dance before another is finished. The players ask us, like an insecure partner, for constant reassurance that we're having a good time. We're not exactly bored, but we carry indelible memories of past partners who were stylish, knew all the steps, and stuck to a program.
Triumph of Love runs through February 21. Call (214) 871-3300.