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Theater review: 'Dangerous Beauty' at Pasadena Playhouse

February 14, 2011 |  5:24 pm

Dangerous beauty 

“Dangerous Beauty,” the new musical about a canny Venetian courtesan based on the 1998 movie of the same title, sets out to seduce its audience with visual opulence. The costumes by Soyon An are like a Renaissance picture book sprung to life and the scenic design by Tom Buderwitz transports our imaginations to the festive 16th century heart of the Italian city-state.

But the show, which opened Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse, has a meretricious quality, in the “deceptively pleasing” sense of the word. Peel away the fancy finery, and you’re stuck with the musical version of a run-of-the-mill call girl. Long story short, the discrepancy between the production’s lavish appearance and the musical’s cliché-ridden reality makes the illusion that we’re encountering something special impossible to sustain.

The score by Michele Brourman (music) and Amanda McBroom (lyrics) recycles generic pop, the choreography by Benoit-Swan Pouffer looks like an “American Idol” rehearsal of feverishly outstretched arms and the book by Jeannine Dominy spoils a fascinating story with a wobbly command of language and more ideas that can be dramatically sorted out. Still, if you can overlook all this and Sheryl Kaller’s inconsistent direction, the show isn’t half bad.

Dangerous beauty 2

All kidding aside, the central story is engrossing and there are some fine performances, most notably by Jenny Powers as the courtesan with the broken heart and Laila Robins as the mother who teaches her the professional ropes. And then, of course, there are those who don’t mind leaving the theater humming the proverbial sets. The scenery is fairly stationary, but if you fall into this category, you probably won’t go home disappointed.

It’s easy to see what initially drew USC professor Margaret F. Rosenthal to the figure of Veronica Franco, who not only made a killing off her wily allure but managed to become a poet and popular sensation at the same time. Rosenthal adapted her dissertation into the book “The Honest Courtesan,” which inspired both the movie and musical adaptations, and the story she unearths is stranger and more compelling than most fiction.

Dominy approaches the material as a love story wrapped in a feminist morality tale sprinkled with cultural history. Veronica (Powers), a young innocent beauty, reciprocates the love of Marco Venier (James Snyder), a well-born soldier, whose father, Pietro (John Antony), insists that he marry a woman of greater fortune. Marco unhappily concedes to his demands, recognizing that for a senator’s son, marriage has more to do with money and power than romance.

Veronica’s ex-courtesan mother, Paola (Robins), urges her shattered daughter in “Art of Seduction” to exploit her natural resources. (“Use them before you lose them” is how McBroom’s anachronistic lyrics phrase the sentiment.) They have been in dire financial straits since the death of Veronica’s father, and their most valuable asset right now is the young woman’s fetching appearance, which is about to get a sexy-glam makeover. (The overdrive smile that Powers adopts to signal Veronica’s innocence will soon transform into a Sphinx-like expression conveying something far naughtier.)

This part of the story is fascinating, and it revived my spirits, which were pretty much flattened by the clumsy staging of the opening number, “I Am Venice.” But the complications that ensue are too numerous. The contrast between Veronica’s commanding autonomy and the helpless, unhappy wives of Venice is delectable in its pointed ironies. Megan McGinnis, who plays Marco’s bartered-off sister, is especially vivid, and the “Hymn to the Madonna” that she takes part in with Morgan Weed, who plays Marco’s miserable wealthy bride, and Powers, is one of the show’s loveliest numbers. Yet there’s a war, a plague and a religious inquisition to muddle through.

That 16th century sure was no picnic. (And we think we have it bad contending with these ham-fisted musicals!) Kaller doesn’t want us to get too caught up in the past. She enjoys the period pomp and color, but she’s no stickler for tone.

Archaic diction comes accompanied with modern mannerisms. Bryce Ryness, who portrays the jealous, trouble-making poet Maffio Venier, has a distinctive flamboyance but one more suited to a rock video than a story set half a millennium ago. (The rhyming doggerel that Maffio pelts passersby with, by the way, seems like it’s written by a second-grader, though the program credits Dominy with book and verse). The less said about the tacky, television-styled lovemaking scene between Veronica and Marco the better.

Powers possesses a potent voice, and she commands the stage with her charm and conviction. Snyder’s presence, while appealing, is less strong, and so our investment in their characters’ union isn’t all that it could be.

Splashy commercial musicals tend to do well at the box office, even mediocre ones with challenging source material and erratic artistic control. But is this really the path that Pasadena Playhouse believes will rejuvenate its standing? Broadway doesn’t need any more suppliers of second-rate goods, but the region could use a dignified venue for authentic, homegrown work.

 Related:

'Dangerous Beauty' creators marry Renaissance with rock 'n' roll

 

 --Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

"Dangerous Beauty," Pasadena Playhouse, 59 S. El Molino, Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 6. $49 to $69. (626) 356-7529 or www.pasadenaplayhouse.com
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Photos: Top: Laila Robins and Jenny Powers.  Bottom: Powers and James Snyder. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times


 
Comments () | Archives (24)

another reason why pasadena playhouse is doomed to crash and burn once more. they need completely new management in the worst way.

It's sort of a can't lose situation for the Playhouse. If this show gets bad reviews they can say "well, it wasn't our show. Outside producers brought it here."
If the reviews are good, they can reap the benefits by proclaiming "We're back, baby!"

I don't know what show Charles McNulty saw. I have been fortunate to see it twice and leaped to my feet in praise both nights along with the rest of the packed theater. This review proves once again just how out of touch you are with reality and your vitriolic banter is tiresome already. To lead out and slam a production and the tremendous talents on-stage and then say "all kidding aside, it isn't half bad" is childish writing, petty and mean spirited. Once again, you have proven your skills in using the thesaurus, proving once again just how out of touch you are.

Sorry, after seeing the preview on Saturday, I agree with McNulty. I almost left at the intermission but my wife wanted to stay. And the second act was better.

Emille,

Mr McNulty isn't the only person criticizing this show. There has been negative word-of-mouth throughout the previews. Just because you loved a show doesn't mean each critic is required to agree. That's the nature of the theatre world.

I saw it and loved it. The songs are still stuck in my head, and I find myself thinking back to the story, amazed at how hard life was for people, and how they handled it sometimes with grace, sometimes not. While certain parts of the plot are of course not relevant today, many of the themes still are, and they were conveyed beautifully.

I have been moved by the depths of the play since I left the theatre on Sat nite. The triump of a women overcoming heartbreak and lack of social position will never be an old story. The determination to uphold the brightness of her spirit beyond all else, could only be an inspiration to anyone seeking truth and light. I was inpired by it's lack of delusion and absence of a fairytale ending. This story was so beautifully told thru the music, unusual, exquistely worded and so easy to hear, the brilliant acting and magnificent sets and costumes. To me ,it was an artistic triumph and I cannot sit back and allow fine art to be sluffed off as Charles McNulty so ineptly tried to do. He missed being consciously present at this show.

I must say I agree that the review was a bit harsh & mean spirited. I know that critics have a right to their opinions, but in this case I think McNulty went a bit too far. I've also noticed that many of the new works reveiwed by him including VENICE (Kirk Douglas) recieve such DEGRADING reviews. To each their own opinion, but I must say that THEATRE is changing, growing, & evolving & we have to embrace the change. I personally enjoyed the ROCK EDGE that Dangerous Beauty gently embraced. It was ROCK meets CLASSICAL. Bryce Ryness' rockstar interpretation of the character in Dangerous Beauty was extremely TIMELY. No it wasn't a bland remake of the era, it was a VENICE with NEW energy, A NEW Pulse, along with the welcomed & unexpected multi-cultural faces...i don't take ANYTHING from anyone's opinion, I'm just exercising the freedom to voice my own as well. McNulty, the FUTURE is here...rap, hip-hop, rock- it's a NEW DAY. Get with it, or GET LEFT behind. DANGEROUS BEAUTY is def worth seeing. THINK for yourself. It's ART in motion & even if you don't LOVE it, I doubt you'll leave with such a NEGATIVE interpretation as was written here. New works, though imperfect (& usually still in need of tweeking), deserve our support & encouragement -not a mean spirited kick in the gut. HATS off to the BRAVE who are willing to GO the distance for their ART.

While I agree with previous comments that Mr. Mcnulty is entitled to dislike or love a performance, it is the manner in which he critiqued the show. I saw the same show and even think I sat behind him and agree with a previous comment, what show did he see? I saw nothing clumsy as he notes in the opening number, rather a breathtaking, sweeping and engaging first introduction to set the tone, story and stage. To say its clumsy, as the reviewer, he has the responsibility to expand off that and tell us why he thought it such. Its the left handed comments that are infuriating.

I have to say -- I'm bewildered by Mr. McNulty's review. This is a lush, gorgeous, intelligent production that manages to depict the atmosphere of 16th century Venice while incorporating 21st century elements.

If, as Mr. McNulty states, some of the lyrics seem anachronistic -- what's the solution? Perhaps the whole show should be done in 16th century Italian? Maybe with an all-male cast (as they did in Shakespeare's time.)

Furthermore, the beautiful score I heard, like the rest of the production, invoked Rennaissance flavor while still being accessible to modern ears. The singing was masterful and nuanced. If this is "recycled generic pop", can Mr. McNulty please tell me where I can find some more of it?

I loved my time with "Dangerous Beauty". Just one opinion. As is Mr. McNulty's.

Just because you are posting comments with a first and last name doesn't make you an actual third-party observer. I really can't stand when producers hit the comment sections and pretend to be actual patrons. It is so transparent.

I feel we are in the age of the "bitchy critic" as birthed from TV but have grown immune to their rants. I thoroughly enjoyed the musical and will be going back in March to see it again with some friends. I believe when you are still humming the songs from a show days later someone got something very right ...the lead is amazing and as for the Pasadena Playhouse's revival theater goers are less interested in politics than good entertainment which this clearly delivered.

Absolutely loved this show despite this review! Everything was perfect from the singing... the blend of script... costumes were gorgeous... staging very magical. Definitely planning to go see it again

I agree with the review. We both looked at each other after the opening number with confusion written all over our faces. Boring, amatuer-ish, BAD.
If we could have left at intermission we would have. Embarrassingly bad, really, do not waste your money. For those that enjoyed it, I am guessing you enjoyed the musical Rent as well? I sometimes wonder if people love/enjoy 'art' because of what it represents, rather than what it is?

Some day, maybe but not likely, Charles McNulty will write a positive review. I'm not holding my breath. If anything is hackneyed and second rates it's McNulty's reviews. I have seen many of the plays he has reviewed and I have to agree we must have been at different theaters. We have yet to see the same play.
I'm really really tired of his whole arrogant attitude. Yes, he has a right to his opinion, he also has an obligation to be fair and just in his criticism. And, that, he is NOT.

Ryan,

Why are you so fixated on this review and why dont you use your real name so we know who YOU are?

Time for Mr. Seldom Ept to step aside and Susan Dietz (who mounted the best productions in Pasadena Playhouse history) to take over.

I finally saw the show. This review is pretty accurate IMO.
Even if you disagree with the review, you can not claim this show is as astounding as many of you are trying to make it seem. It's just intellectually dishonest. It's a flawed show on many levels. Sure, there are some things to like. And McNulty says that. But you are just being foolish and dishonest if you claiming everything about this show is perfect.

Ryan Vogel

TIME OUT! The role of a critic is often to point out the best of the best. And after awhile you've seen so many good and great shows. In my time I've been fortunate to see Maggie Smith in London (silly comedies and an unforgettable performance with her then-husband in Private Lives). Fabulous musical productions (also in London) - especially Company. Recently I'd have to include South Pacific and My Fair Lady at the Ahmanson.

But don't confuse whether the show is great to having a really good time!
Many times the plays are only middling, but the immediacy of the experience ensures that almost any play is better than almost any movie.

And then there are the venues where the experience itself is quite enjoyable. That includes the Pasadena Playhouse. The area is safe, there are tons of nice restaurants around, parking is easy and not super-expensive, and the Playhouse itself ... You'll not find as nice a classic theater outside of London.

The fault of many critics is that they fail to remind us often enough of their perspective and of the intrinsic pleasures of theater-going.

As ardent fans of the film, we came with high expectations yet knowing that the onstage "Dangerous Beauty" would be markedly different. We liked the musical but didn't love it. I guess we frowned upon the contemporary treatment of something that is better valued as a 16th century romance. There's a real Romeo and Juliet quality to the story that is indelible. But the Hollywood glitz of this show took the weight out of the story. Jenny Powers is a fine talent but James Snyder's Marco looks like he's from Malibu. The show panders to a demographic searching for more style and yet less substance. To be fair, if we hadn't seen the film or had the piece been entitled something like "Veronica Franco: I Am Venice", we might not have made the unfair comparison to a landmark film. Good...but not as good or as wonderful as the movie.

 
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