Most of us know about one of the most famous and beloved noses of them all, and that includes the ones belonging to Pinocchio and Durante. That most extravagantly sculptured facial appendage belonged to Edmond Rostand’s famous 19th century poet-warrior, Cyrano de Bergerac. Size evidently mattered then as it does now in the 21st century. The nose is once again paramount in a delightful new and modern-day musical by composer/author/lyricist Barry Wyner, inspired by the Rostand play.
Following workshop productions at Gloucester Stage (Massachusetts) and at Barrington Stage’s Musical Theater Lab, “Calvin Berger” is now having its official regional premiere at the George Street Playhouse. Along the way, multi award-winning Kathleen Marshall (“The Pajama Game,” “Wonderful Town”) picked up the reins of this promising musical. Working with four endearing and talented young performers and an A team of designers, Marshall has newly conceptualized the musical. That she had Wyner’s winning and witty score to work with is no small matter.
No grandiose epic or tragedy afoot here, just a high school somewhere in America where four 17-year-olds, two boys and two girls, are obsessing either alone in their bedrooms at home or with others over the usual things: image, looks, self-esteem, and, of course, unrequited love.
Calvin (Noah Weisberg), is a very bright student but “not a nerd.” He’s self-conscious about the size of his nose, which we can see is not really as big as he imagines. He dreams romantically about Rosanna (Krystal Joy Brown), the school’s knock-out beauty who would like to be appreciated for being more than the “It-girl.” Bret (Dana Steingold), a petite bundle of spunk and sass, is distressed at the size of her ass. She also displays an original and delightful taste in fashion and has been Calvin’s best friend forever. Unfortunately, she has been unable to get Calvin to notice her romantically. Matt (David Hull), is the new hunk athlete at school with a crush on Rosanna. Because Matt gets tongue-tied and is unable to communicate his feelings to Rosanna, he accepts the help of Calvin, who writes the love poems that Matt recites.
Weissberg makes a big deal about the size of his nose, but we are more impressed with the breadth of his invigorating performance as Calvin. Brown doesn’t have to try hard to be a looker but she also dazzles us with her singing voice in her big solo “More Than Meets the Eye.” Hull, an ingratiating young performer, has evidently put as much work into making Matt a real charmer as he has in giving his abs a workout. And you can’t stop Steingold from putting an extra zing into every scene she is in.
The plot turns predictably on how long can Calvin and Matt keep up their deception, and how will the pairing be resolved? Wyner’s melodic pop-rap-rock score is devoted to defining the most agitated states of the characters either singly, in pairs, or collectively. “We’re the Man” creates an exhilarating sense of solidarity between Calvin and Matt. While highly energized ensemble numbers as “The Fight,” “How Can I Compete With That,” and a reprised “Perfect For You” are audience pleasers, I was most affected by Calvin’s poignant ode to his insecurity and Bret’s plaintive “Saturday Alone.”
And Marshall keeps the teenagers’ angst in motion and with an eye for youthful spontaneity. The action moves fluidly in Derek McLane’s two tiered setting: The four decorously cluttered bedrooms are above and below are a series of doors that open and allow various small set pieces to glide forward. Aside from the adventurous frocks he made for Bret, costume designer Martin Pakledinaz has given the other teens some spiffy attire.
The funny and clever rap enhanced verses that composer Wyner has applied to “Calvin Berger” may not be as florid as those by Rostand, but what they do is reflect the passions and the pain of youth. Wyner is a new musical theater writer who shows tremendous promise. In contrast to the darker side of teenagers discovering love in “Spring Awakening,” “Calvin Berger” is deliberately cheery, wholesome, and fun for the whole family and deserves to have a life considerably longer than the nose on his face.
Rostand’s classic story has long been a source for adaptors. Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah starred in the 1987 film comedy that used the basic story as a starting point for a modern take. Musical versions in the past were, however, faithful to the original time and place, including “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Victor Herbert in 1899, “Cyrano” in 1973 (as played by Christopher Plummer) and a Dutch import “Cyrano: The Musical” in 1994.
“Calvin Berger,” through Sunday, March 14, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. 732-246-7717.