Waiting to Inhale

More than anything, Cyrano de Bergerac is terrified that his beautiful cousin, Roxane, will laugh at his nose. Cyrano is madly in love with Roxane, but his rocket schnozz makes him feel ugly. So, as the sad clown, he takes a defensive stance and pokes fun at his own most obvious physical flaw. He jokes that his nose is a "peninsula," a "razor case." He compares it to a chimney, a monument and a blue cucumber. He quips that when it bleeds, out pours "the Red Sea." Poor guy. On the outside, sword-brandishing Cyrano swaggers as the bravest guardsman with the quickest wit. But inside, sweet Cyrano's heart aches with insecurity.

Edmond Rostand's 19th-century French play remains one of the great romantic tragedies, full of poetic, universal themes of love, deception, self-hatred, chivalry and hope. But with its five long acts of flowery verse and swordplay, the original text rarely gets stage time anymore. In 1997 actor Frank Langella gave Cyrano a much needed face-lift by trimming the script and retitling it Frank Langella's Cyrano, which, if Rostand were alive today, would certainly put the playwright's nose out of joint. Now requiring just 11 actors instead of 50, the play unfolds in just over two hours. This revised version was a hit on the New York stage and now is a favorite pick for regional theaters, including Plano Repertory Theatre, where it's running as the first show of this theater's season.

The Plano production, directed by Ryan J. Pointer, comes within a nosehair of being pretty good. But too many things go wrong technically and artistically, and--sniff, sniff--even the guy sporting the big proboscis isn't really on the nose in his portrayal. For one thing, actor Mark Shum isn't wearing the huge prosthetic snoot required for the title role--it's wearing him. Looking like a cross between Bob Hope's ski slope and the thing Lucy Ricardo stuck on her face to meet Bill Holden, Shum's putty honker has a disturbing grayish pallor and a tendency to droop below his chin. In Steve Martin's fine 1987 film adaptation, Roxanne, Martin's fake nose was a wildly exaggerated bird's beak, but at least it was friendly in its fleshiness. Shum's faux nose looks like he's birthing a baby elephant from between his squinty eyes. It's distracting.

Shum also comes off too angry to be adorable. Cyrano needs its nose-wearer to be a mensch under that monster snout. The audience has to fall in love with him. Tortured by his own unspoken feelings, Cyrano helps a tongue-tied friend, a handsome young soldier named Christian (Stephen Tickner), to win the heart of Roxane (Amy Storemski) by feeding him elegant dialogue and ghostwriting his love letters. Roxane quickly is won over by Cyrano's poetry as delivered by Christian, unaware that she's fallen in love with the wrong man. When Christian dies in battle, Cyrano is faced with a heartbreaking dilemma. Should he reveal his deception and possibly win Roxane? Or will he gallantly keep the secret and preserve Christian's romantic legacy?

Because of an uneven performance by Shum, who tends to shout his dialogue too gruffly, the Plano Rep production makes Christian, not Cyrano, the man the audience roots for. Actor Tickner looks movie-star handsome, but he also imbues Christian with a quiet grace. This Christian is not at all the thick-headed doofus he's usually made out to be. He's a hunk, but not a lunk. When Christian is mortally wounded in battle and collapses into Roxane's arms, it's the most emotionally wrenching moment in this production, beautifully acted by Tickner and Storemski. We can't imagine at that point that Cyrano is the better man.

In the supporting cast, good work is done by Robert Rain, who makes a powerful De Guiche, the regimental leader who is Cyrano's nemesis. Scott Milligan shows an Oliver Hardy-like flair with three small comic roles as an actor, priest and soldier. James Gilbert, Elizabeth Van Winkle and Matt Tomlanovich also are strong in parts that have just a few lines. Nice fencing work, too, from fight choreographer Robin Armstrong, billed as the "violence designer."

On the technical side, this Cyrano has problems as plain as the nose on anyone's face. Scott Kirkham's set--two blocky storefronts joined by a suspended walkway--appears amateurishly constructed and haphazardly painted. Kirkham's lighting design casts dark shadows on areas of the stage where important speeches take place. Michael Robinson's costumes are a hodgepodge of contemporary fringes, ruffles and leathers, making it hard to pinpoint the time or place of the play. And why the Gidget flip for Roxane's hair? Should a 19th-century heroine really be wearing perky barrettes?

Most annoying technically is the intrusive sound design by J. Keith Emmons, who seems to have mistaken this period stage play for a 1950s Douglas Sirk film. Under nearly every important soliloquy rises a soundtrack that soars to deafening levels. In the famous balcony scene, Roxane listens to Cyrano, who is hiding in the shadows pretending to be Christian wooing her with honeyed words. Here we can barely decipher the poetry over the strains of "Clair de Lune" and then, inexplicably, Edith Piaf warbling "La Vie en Rose." Suddenly, we're not in a theater anymore, we're waiting for an order of quiche at La Madeleine.

A play like Cyrano never loses its meaning. All of us, after all, have some physical flaw about which we're overly sensitive. That's what makes this story timeless. Too bad Plano Rep didn't quite get it right. They took a classic play about history's most famous nose and they blew it.

Can there really be a Cyrano connection in Footloose? The bubblegummy 1984 movie was expanded into a bubblegummier Broadway musical a few years ago, and now it's onstage in a lively but ragged community theater production at Flower Mound's new Parker Square Playhouse.

The connection to Rostand's work is there all right, between the characters of Ren, the Chicago boy shocked to discover there's no dancing allowed in the small town of Bomont, and Willard, a lovable hick who freezes up when he's within 10 yards of his beloved, Rusty. Only when Ren teaches Willard some groovy dance steps is the young oaf emboldened to ask Rusty, gulp, to the illegal prom the kids are throwing down by the tracks.

Oh, wait, that was the Kevin Bacon movie. The stage version is slightly different, but no matter. Most of the same plot points remain, along with about a dozen bouncy tunes, including the movie's "Almost Paradise," "Let's Hear It for the Boy" and the Kenny Loggins title song. The stage version was adapted by the film's creator and lyricist, Dean Pitchford, along with Walter Bobbie. Music is by Tom Snow.

The acting space in the Parker Square Playhouse is just a few weeks old, and even at the weekend matinee performance reviewed (a few days after the opening night of Footloose), the paint was still wet and the barebones set unfinished. This is not an audience-friendly space. Sightlines are blocked by large building-support columns onstage. Acoustically it's a lead-lined casket. The cast of energetic young performers, many of them students at UNT, SMU and Collin County Community College, must wear those clunky and very visible head mikes to make themselves heard. The result is sound that is either too loud or is muffled. Visually, the headgear makes the cast look like a bunch of dancing switchboard operators.

In the leads are the kids of the theater group's director, Peg Waldschmidt, and technical director, Diane Maresca. As Ren McCormack, the Chicago high schooler with happy feet and a big mouth, Travis Waldschmidt dances well, sings OK, but can't act a lick. As Ariel, the preacher's rebellious daughter, Melissa Maresca has a lovely voice and a ballerina's build, which she wrecks with slumpy posture. As Willard, Michael Maresca emerges as the star of the show, singing and dancing with unbridled joy and a real sense that he knows what he's doing up there.

Community theater being what it is, there are those in the cast who hit flat notes more than good ones. The set changes take ages. Kids cough into their head mikes and trip over wires when battery packs fall out of the back of their shorts. But jeez, Louise, just when it's starting to look like a train wreck, somebody with a sweet face will step into the spotlight and save the moment.

Footloose is about as dippy a musical as it gets and this is nowhere close to a polished production, but there are worse ways to spend an afternoon in Flower Mound.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner