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NEW YORK – Playing a French Riviera drag queen by way of British music hall, Douglas Hodge won a Tony Award for the 2010 revival of La Cage aux Folles. Presumably given his choice of vehicles in which to return to Broadway, the gifted English actor has opted for Edmond Rostand’s 1897 classic, Cyrano de Bergerac, taking on the eloquent French nobleman whose love life is cramped by his unfortunate snout. But while Hodge attacks the title role with formidable energy and inventiveness, his virtuosic display muffles the poetry of the play. The same goes in general for the pedal-to-the-metal approach of Jamie Lloyd’s unevenly cast production.
Cyrano had been absent from Broadway for more than two decades after the Royal Shakespeare Company production with Derek Jacobi ran for a limited engagement in the 1984-85 season. But it was given a major revival only five years ago, starring Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner. That staging, like this one, was hit-and-miss, its visual splendors rarely matched by its conveyance of the text’s passions and sorrows.
Taking his cue from Ranjit Bolt’s rough-and-ready translation, which is loaded with colloquialisms, Lloyd pushes for modernity over elegance. His Gascon cadets are not speechifying gents, but rowdy, irreverent wild men, indulging in the kind of roistering behavior you might find in a Monty Python sketch. Hodge’s Cyrano is a perfect swashbuckling ringleader for this scrappy troupe, spoiling for a fight at the first hint of mockery over his porcine honker. Both verbally and physically, he is not to be tangled with, humiliating all challengers whether their weapons are words or swords.
The distinctly contemporary flavor of the performances and language plays in sharp contrast to the tableau-like formality of much of the staging on designer Soutra Gilmour’s naturalistic 17th-century set, its two-level stone façade broken by six arched entrances. This is all well and good in terms of injecting fresh blood into a classic text. Who needs another starchy presentation full of declamatory pomp? But the boisterousness feels forced and frequently antithetical to a play whose title character is defined in part by the sensual pleasure he derives from savoring his words. A play written in rhyming couplets requires musicality, and this production too often sacrifices that quality in favor of vigorous physicality and speed. Even the scene transitions are pumped up via Charlie Rosen’s thundering cinematic score.
All that ruckus tends to dull the pathos when Lloyd finally does take his foot off the accelerator in the more poignant scenes. The first significant one of these is the famous balcony encounter where Cyrano supplies the mellifluous voice and eloquent expressions of love to woo his distant cousin Roxanne (Clémence Poésy) on behalf of tongue-tied young cadet Christian (Kyle Soller).
Cyrano’s own secret, unrequited feelings for Roxanne, and his sense of unworthiness due to his appearance, make him one of the great tragicomic romantic heroes. But in the early scenes Hodge works way too hard on a string of different accents and silly voices. This is most notable in the episode in which he flamboyantly makes mincemeat of an arrogant antagonist, composing a ballad while dueling with the man. He calls to mind Robin Williams on a talk show. The actor’s technique and comic versatility are impressive. But the bravura display smothers the character’s inner dimensions.
It’s unhelpful that while Poésy (Fleur Delacour in the Harry Potter movies) and Soller capably deliver the verse, neither of them makes much of an impression. She’s pretty but also pretty ordinary. Admittedly, Christian almost always comes off as a thankless part. But while there’s much talk of his extraordinarily handsome looks, the actor is stuck in a lank wig that makes him look like a deadhead skater dude. This is the dreamboat that the discerning and intelligent Roxanne falls for at first sight?
The extended final scene, in which the wounded Cyrano calls on widowed Roxanne at the convent where she has lived in mourning for many years, is inevitably moving. She finally learns that the impassioned words and letters that won her heart were his and not Christian’s.
It’s in this part of the play that Hodge sneaks up with a wallop of eleventh-hour emotional impact. “That’s me: Always the prompter, never the star,” he observes after being exposed as inarticulate Christian’s stand-in and also the victim of plagiarism by the more celebrated Molière. A few quieter moments throughout the play to indicate the cruel ways in which Cyrano’s uncommon wit, intellect and soulfulness have been negated by his looks would have considerably enhanced the conclusion’s resonance.
Paradoxically, the production’s most affecting work comes from its villain. Proving that there is life after Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Patrick Page doffed his Green Goblin costume to step into the comparatively small but juicy role here of the oily Comte de Guiche.
For most of the action de Guiche is a snide adversary to Cyrano, a schemer for Roxanne’s affections and a hazard to the soldiers of Gascony when he impetuously sends the boys into battle in a virtual suicide mission. But he has a beautiful speech near the end in which he reveals that wealth, rank and privilege do not ensure happiness or even self-respect. This makes him the character that undergoes the most profound change, and Page traces that process with a melancholy ruefulness that is genuinely touching. Page’s handle on the language is impeccable and effortless, something that can’t be said for all other aspects of this revival.
For the record, producers announced this week that Hodge will play Willy Wonka in a new stage musical adaptation — directed by Sam Mendes, with songs by Hairspray composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman — of Roald Dahl‘s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, opening in London’s West End next June.
Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York (runs through Nov. 25)
Cast: Douglas Hodge, Clémence Poésy, Patrick Page, Kyle Soller, Max Baker, Bill Buell, Geraldine Hughes, Peter Bradbury, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Mikaela Feely-Lehmann, Andy Grotelueschen, Tim McGeever, Drew McVety, Frances Mercanti-Anthony, Okieriete Onaodowan, Samuel Roukin, Ben Steinfeld
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Playwright: Edmond Rostand; translation by Ranjit Bolt
Set and costume designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Music: Charlie Rosen
Movement: Chris Bailey
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company.
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