Improvisational theater was not, as some may be inclined to think, born in Chicago. This art was born in Italy during the 16th century and performed by touring troupes of skilled actors, who portrayed stereotypical characters dressed in colorful costumes and wearing leather masks. That style, known as commedia dell’arte, was notable for being fast, furious, and funny. “The Glorious Ones,” a new musical about that tradition with a praiseworthy score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) gives us all of the above and more.
First praise, however, must go to director-choreographer Graciela Daniele, who has not only complied with the aforementioned requisites, but recreated the commedia brand of comedy with fearless abandon. It is evident that she inspired the terrific cast headed by dashing and charismatic Marc Kudisch. Despite Kudisch’s being center stage for much of the time in his role as Flaminio Scala, the founder and star of the troupe that began the tradition, all the performances are a tribute to those innovative players of yore.
The marvelous composing team of Flaherty and Ahrens have come up with a charming, melodious, and clever score. It is so rich and flavorful that it makes one pant for the release of the CD. As in the past, these long-time partners have ventured into rarified territory to create a lovely and rewarding piece of musical theater. They are fortunate that Lincoln Center Theater is once again supportive of their work, as they were for “A Man of No Importance” and “Dessa Rose.”
Like their other Broadway-produced work, the brilliantly composed “Ragtime,” and the charming and underappreciated “Seussical,” “The Glorious Ones” is rich with their signature flavors of sweet melodies and clever lyrics. Its unique fact-based story, as adapted from the novel by Francine Prose, supposes the origins of the commedia and its players as we see how their idiosyncratic characteristics are destined to become the classic archetypes.
The musical has been craftily designed by Dan Ostling: a bi-level unit set of wooden planks flanked by a pair of stairways leading to a perch where the musicians can be seen and, in one instance, used as a part of a gag. The gifted players make excellent use of a small stage with a mini-curtain atop the lower playing area that serves as the streets of Italy in the late 1500s. It is all quite compact and engaging.
While the tradition of commedia calls for broad strokes and bawdy illusions, Daniele’s staging of the hijinks and low comedy is consistently disarming, particularly as they are incorporated into the classically commemorative skits. Yet it is the often hilarious characterizations that ultimately define this musical. And so, while it is close to being a chamber opera, it is delightfully far from high brow with the action often quite purposely very low-brow.
Kudisch is splendid as an egotistic carouser who shapes the troupe of “cranky maladjusted misfits” to perform in his crass but truthful improvisatory style. He has plenty to sing but “Madness to Act,” “Improvisation,” “I Was Here,” and the title song are notable arias. The musical spends almost half of its 100 minutes establishing the endearing personalities and talents of the various players. Belated conflicts arise when their appearance before a shocked royal court in Paris is a fiasco. They are ordered to leave the country or be arrested when some members of the troupe begin to see that their bawdy improvisatory style has begun to wane.
Erin Davie is luminous as Isabella, an aristocratic young woman who joins the troupe and falls in love with Flaminio’s protege, Francesco (Jeremy Webb). Davie’s aria “The World She Writes” and Webb’s acrobatically enhanced “Absolom” provide more musical highlights and also heighten the late-in-the-show conflicts. Flaminio resents Isabella’s talent for writing scripts while his lover, Columbina, portrayed with lusty sensuality by Natalie Venetia Belcon, resents her for taking over the roles of the troupe’s ingenue.
There is rarely a moment that David Patrick, as an elfin Pantalone, Julyana Soelistyo, as the petite and touchingly funny mascot Armanda Ragusa, and John Kassir, as the daffy Dottore, are not fulfilling their task to make us laugh. As you might expect, our eyes are often drawn to Mara Blumenfeld’s whimsical period costumes even as Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting makes sure we don’t miss any of the rousing ribaldry. There is also a tender denouement in this lovely musical that may just put a tear in your eye.
“The Glorious Ones,” through January 6, 2008, Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 165 West 65th Street. $70 to $75. www.lct.org 212-239-6200.