Even before the delightfully clockwork plot works its elegant charm, Keith Baker’s production of the “The Triumph of Love” at Bristol Riverside Theater signals the wit and merriment in store in this 1997 musical version of 18th century French playwright Marivaux’s play. The adaptation is by James Magruder, Susan Birkenhead, and Jeffrey Stock.
Audiences waiting for the production to start get right in the mood with Roman Tatarowicz’s storybook illustration of a set, filled with Baroque touches: manicured topiary, gilded statues, and, at the top of the proscenium, hearts aflutter.
And soon Douglass G. Lutz strikes up the band and Harlequin (Adam Hoyak) gambols out and firmly sets the tone for Baker’s lovely confection: bittersweet in that love only triumphs for some.
This being a musical, the only thing that matters is the genuine affection that young queen Leonide (Alex Keiper) feels toward a young man she doesn’t realize is a prince, Agis (Jake Delaney).
Side affairs Leonide has in various guises to woo a wary Agis just add to the fun and complexity of Marivaux’s classic trifle.
“The Triumph of Love” is all about the awakening of romance among people who have forsworn it, scholars who put head over heart, and the study of science and practical matters over anything sensuous or emotional. They represent the pristine and pure to the point of pathology. Leonide, on the other hand, is the embodiment of heart and uses a neatly constructed pyramid of stratagems to stir passions that had been consciously sublimated.
You can see the classic structure. Girl who happens to be a queen spies a boy who happens to be a prince and goes fervently ga-ga at the sight of him. Boy is callow and unschooled in love. He has been educated to deny all passion by his uncle, Hermocrates (Carl Wallnau), a professor of renown, and his aunt (Joy Franz), who is equally learned and immune to the amorous.
Adding to the confusion is Leonide being a mortal enemy to the prince and unable to reveal her true identity, forcing her to invent three different personae for the three hearts she has to conquer to win the one she wants.
Adaptor Magruder is true to Marivaux in bringing all of this to light, and Birkenhead and Stock follow suit with a score that is as literate and versatile. The result is a production that keeps a smile on one’s face. Everyone involved makes this “Triumph of Love” a jolly time while hitting Marivaux’s intellectual ideas about head, heart, and their proportionate combination and giving the small soupcons of pathos in the script their due.
The main characters are enough for “The Triumph of Love” to sail to high levels of entertainment, but Marivaux writes in an era when clownish servants occupied important parts in comedy, and neither the musical’s writers nor Baker stint in putting those wonderful characters on stage. Accordingly Hoyak, Danny Rutigliano, and Rebecca Robbins add such multiple jolts of lightness and energy to the production and equal the lead actors in importance and enjoyment.
In the past few seasons, actor and a director Baker has shown a talent for finding the extra elements that make a production more than just a faithful rendering of an author’s intention.
There is a feeling of esprit in his “Triumph of Love” here that makes it enchanting. There’s a definite sense a story is being told, presented as an adult might read a story to a child, yet with sophisticated elements that make all seem simple and complex at the same time. The thoughtfulness with which Marivaux endowed his characters comes through even though they, for all their high-mindedness, are primarily sources of comedy.
Marivaux respectfully ridicules the notion that life should be entirely ascetic and devoted to scholarship while making it clear living totally for fun and eschewing science and other subjects that enhance life is an equal mistake. He advocates a balance between the two attitudes, and Baker strikes a precarious balance between outright farce and stately comedy of manners.
He has the right partners to accomplish this. Birkenhead’s lyrics are a constant joy in this age of shallow sentiments. Magruder maintains a classic tone but smartly peppers his dialogue with contemporary references and comments about current times. Stock’s music keeps up the cheer but cleverly suggests other moods and attitudes Marivaux and Magruder broach.
The acting is universally superb. Rebecca Robbins, as Leonide’s servant, Corine, is a particular delight, nailing tart-ish lines and providing unbridled pep whenever she’s on stage. Adam Hoyak is a resourceful Harlequin who can be wistfully and wittily antic, then break your heart. Hoyak also masquerades with flair as an old suitor of Leonide’s. Danny Rutigliano shows once again he is a natural comedian who knows how to present any joke. And all are grandly abetted by Stephen Casey’s choreography, which includes some well-placed Lollipop Guild kicks.
Carl Wallnau personifies all Marivaux, Magruder, and Baker are doing with his wonderful portrayal of Hermocrates. Wallnau finds the sternness in the character so that it is funnier to see him fight and then succumb to an urge to love. Joy Franz, in addition to doing a lovely rendition of Birkenhead and Stock’s “Serenity,” wrings hearts as the spinster who is introduced at last to romance and then is disappointed in it. Jake Delaney marries the puerility of Agis with a boyish heroism he musters to conquer the enemy who wants to be his wife.
Alex Keiper gives the most interesting performance. Though she has an excellent singing voice, it doesn’t match the more classic tones her cast mates reveal. Keiper seems more contemporary and urban than the other characters.
As her performance progresses, these differences matter less and less. Keiper establishes Leonine as a changing force among characters resisting an important part of life. She is a ringmaster making wonders happen. She makes you, as she must, like Leonide even when she is not acting in the best of faith. All in all, Keiper dominates Baker’s production in the right way and becomes its chief delight.
The Triumph of Love, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, May 20. $45 to $52. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org