Theater review: 'Dangerous Beauty' at Pasadena Playhouse
“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.
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.
"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