Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 41 / 12 October 2017
 

Princess goes on the lam

Theatre


Georgia Engel is aunt and chaperone to Stephanie Styles' crown princess, who wants to escape her royal duties for a night on the town in the new musical based on the movie "Roman Holiday." Photo: Joan Marcus
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The new musical based on "Roman Holiday" is diligently pleasant, and with some fixes, it could be even more pleasant. But there is no way it can ever escape the pleasant label, a description with positive connotations when talking about the weather or a conversation, but is more like damning with faint praise when the subject is a big musical with "pre-Broadway premiere" as part of its billing. It is a doubtful candidate for survival in New York, if indeed it is ever put to that test.

Yet for some audiences, "Roman Holiday" might provide a once-upon-a-time respite from the "Hamiltons," "Matildas," "Fun Homes," "Spring Awakenings," "American Idiots," and other musicals that have revitalized Broadway but that want to challenge as well as engage theatergoers. "Roman Holiday" is pretty much challenge-free in all regards, from the script that doesn't much stray from the sensibilities of the 1953 movie starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, to the score that has been filled with Cole Porter chestnuts.

One Porter song that you obviously will not hear is "I Love Paris," a paean to a city he loved and that he often referenced in his songs. If the project had been to find songs for a project titled "Paris Holiday," the choice of his songbook would have a resonance missing here – which is not to say that at least some of the songs don't slip smoothly into the proceedings, and even when they need a shove to fit into the plot, it can be a pleasure to hear them.

"I Love Paris" was first heard in 1953, in the Broadway musical "Can-Can," which happens to be the same year "Roman Holiday" made its debut in movie theaters. The musical derived from the movie also looks like it could have been assembled in 1953, and while it would be nice to report that the intent was homage, what's on stage at the Golden Gate Theatre seems unimaginatively old-fashioned. It's one of those shows where a young couple may begin singing while taking a stroll, and soon pushcart vendors, tourists, shopkeepers, pedestrians, and the carabinieri are all singing along, even though the lyrics have nothing to do with anything going on in their lives.

That couple happens to be an American newspaper correspondent stationed in Rome, battle-tested and bored with peace, and a crown princess of an unnamed country, a girl who just wants to have fun. When Princess Anne goes on the lam from her royal duties and gets staggeringly drunk, reporter Joe Bradley lends her a pair of pajamas and his couch to sleep it off. Before she wakes up, he realizes he has a princess in his pad and a big scoop for his newspaper. With a photographer pal in tow, Joe shows Anne the town while surreptitiously chronicling her candid self.

Even if you've never seen the movie or haven't seen it in years, nothing much in the plot or how it's rendered is likely to be much of a surprise. Wait. Let me briefly walk back on that. In a role largely created for the musical, Georgia Engel's initial entrance and subsequent appearances as the queen's aunt and chaperone are greeted with sparks of affection and laughter. Librettists Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman, and Paul Blake have obviously tailored the role to Engel's spacey charms, and she is the only irreplaceable member of the cast.

We're back to pleasant and/or predictable for the other major players. Stephanie Styles is endearing as Princess Anne, vocally well-equipped and with good comedic instincts. The lanky Drew Gehling isn't bad company as Joe, but looks like he must have been 15 years old while covering WWII, and doesn't have a hint of anything resembling a seasoned newspaperman of the era. Jarrod Spector and Sarah Chase go through standard-issue wisecracking routines as the secondary couple, playing the womanizing photographer and his sultry forever-fiancee girlfriend.

Spector won a Tony Award for playing songwriter Barry Mann in "Beautiful – The Carole King Musical," which also had a pre-Broadway premiere in San Francisco. The same director is at the helm of "Roman Holiday," but in the earlier show, Marc Bruni was able to give a musical built around pop oldies a stylishly vibrant look abetted by its seamless integration with Josh Prince's choreography. None of that is present in "Roman Holiday," with Alex Sanchez's jumbled choreography unable to gain traction with what feels like an understaffed ensemble.

The recent Broadway production of "An American in Paris," adapted from the 1951 movie, demonstrated how mining old treasures can still bring up gold when digging with the right tools. "Roman Holiday" seems satisfied with theatrically recycling surface artifacts, a perfectly pleasant pastime likely to be best-appreciated far away from that lion-filled coliseum known as Broadway.

 

"Roman Holiday" will run through June 18 at the Golden Gate Theatre. Tickets are $55-$275. Call (888) 746-1799 or go to shnsf.com.

 






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