Bucks County Herald

Naughty comedy fuels mash-up period musical at Bristol theater

LISA JO SAGOLLA



Carl Wallnau as Hermocrates and Joy Franz as Hesione are part of Bristol Riverside Theatre’s production of the farcical period-piece musical “Triumph of Love,” running through May 20.

A silly take on a serious subject, the diverting 1997 chamber musical “Triumph of Love,” playing at Bristol Riverside Theatre through May 20, investigates love’s transformative powers through titillating songs and bawdy banter masquerading as formal sophisticated-sounding prose.

Naughtiness abounds in the witty book by James Magruder and in the show’s appealing score, with music by Jeffrey Stock and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. There are abundant double-entendres.

Based on Marivaux’s 1732 French comedy, the musical is set in Sparta where Princess Léonide (Alex Keiper) partakes in elaborate cross-dressing ruses in pursuit of her beloved Agis (Jake Delaney), the nephew of pompous philosopher Hermocrates (Carl Wallnau) and his staid sister Hesione (Joy Franz).

The result is a farcical mash-up of ancient Greek history, 18th-century French fashion, Italian commedia dell’arte traditions, and vaudevillian razzle-dazzle.

The show’s diverse cast takes a variety of approaches to the comic material that all prove valid, if not equally effective. Wallnau gives a marvelously detailed performance as a man pathetically governed by reason, speaking volumes with tiny movements of his lips, fingers or facial muscles, and nuanced shifts of weight and body tensions.

The 70-something Broadway veteran Franz, on the other hand, draws us in through a less-physicalized, more internally-driven performance, bolstered by her still-potent singing voice, which exudes a rich warmth in the lower registers then leaps effortlessly up to light, soaring high notes.

Not quite as heart-throbbing as romantic leads usually are, Delaney and Keiper get the job done, nonetheless. Though his patter singing is muddier than one would like, when it counts Delaney comes through with the money notes and his high-baritone proves quite thrilling. Keiper also relies on vocal power to snare our sympathies, as her cocky boyish attitude tends to distance us from any heartfelt investment in Léonide’s romantic mission.

Rounding out the small cast are three fierce supporting players: the golden-voiced Rebecca Robbins as Léonide’s servant Corine, a role one wishes included more solo singing for this beguiling songstress; agile Adam Hoyak who outrageously impersonates a foppish French baron and, in choreography by Stephen Casey, exquisitely mimics the distinctive body shapings of his Harlequin character; and the expert comic actor Danny Rutigliano, bringing a riotous Brooklyn-accented interpretation to his role as a put-upon gardener.

Seasoned director Keith Baker moves the production along with lively staging, though not at the breakneck pace of a farce, thus successfully emphasizing the story’s contemplative aspects yet making for a difficult slog through the exposition-heavy first act.

The second act, however, sails briskly from one exciting musical selection to the next, enhanced by a fine nine-piece pit orchestra, under the baton of musical director Douglass G. Lutz.

As the theater sports no actual orchestra pit (making the musicians’ presence on the floor in front of the stage a distraction in other shows I’ve seen in this house), I say “Bravo” to the clever mind that came up with the hilarious idea of putting those white 18th-century coiffed wigs on the heads of Lutz and his entire team of instrumentalists.

Thanks to Lisa Zinni’s extravagant period costumes, and scenic designer Roman Tatarowicz’s grand depiction of a topiary garden framed by an ornate gold proscenium that screams “Baroque,” the production is always luscious to look at and even offers a special-effects surprise for the finale.

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