SCHENECTADY — “A wooden stage, an audience and great actors. It’s heaven!”
That’s a line uttered by one of the actors in SLOC’s current production of “The Glorious Ones,” the Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens 2007 musical about a traveling troupe of actors wandering Italy in the late 1500s. The line aptly describes the evening. Well, most of the line does. There is a wooden stage, an audience and some great actors. Not sure I am down with the “heaven” part, but this production is gloriously good.
Based on a novel by Francine Prose, “The Glorious Ones” began as a passion project of librettist and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who loved Prose’s novel, a fictionalized historical retelling of the public and private lives of a real troupe of Commedia dell’arte actors as they traversed 17th-century Italy. Ahrens felt the story “could sing” and started outlining the project with her writing partner, composer Stephen Flaherty.
The musical adaptation of the show gestated for more than a decade, with Ahrens adjusting the time period, streamlining the story and characters, and fine-tuning the theme to include a celebration of the source of improvisational comedy. The end result is a clever and often tuneful musical that offers a welcome peek into a chapter of theater history and style — Commedia dell’arte — that is now seldom experienced outside of textbooks.
For inquiring minds, Commedia dell’arte was a popular form of public theater in Europe during the 16th to 18th centuries. Small troupes of actors traveled around, presenting entertainment. When they would arrive in a city or village, they would set up a wooden platform in the town square, hang a tattered curtain as backdrop and improvise a show for all assembled. The actors usually didn’t work from a script, but a scenario — a listing of the basic actions of the story — so everything that happened on the stage was improvised. These actors were usually recruited street performers, acrobats or magicians who incorporated their talents into the productions.
The shows were often bawdy, packed with dirty jokes and innuendo. Sound familiar? It should — the tenets of Commedia style informed not only the foundation of Shakespeare but comics of the modern era. Lucille Ball, Robin Williams, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin — these are just a few that were influenced by the physical and improvisational style of Commedia dell’arte.
In “The Glorious Ones,” the authors have paired archetypes of the style to their musical characters. Here, the players consist of the leader, the flamboyant and fearless Flaminio Scala (James Alexander); his leading lady, onstage and off, the formidable Columbina (Elizabeth Corey); the handsome juvenile Francesco (Benjamin Hitrick); moonstruck ingénue Isabella (Emily Mack Hass); comic and shrewd servant Armanda (Elizabeth Sherwood-Mack); the miserly merchant, Pantalone (Kevin O’Toole); intellectual braggart Dottore (Jack Boggan); and as the page, crew and crowd, Pedrolina (Caroline Jameson).
The vocal prowess of this cast truly astonishes. Each and every actor burnishes this material to its full luster.
In the expert hands of director Brian Clemente, he and his cast of eight commit fully to the style and conceit of the challenging piece and succeed in spades, hearts and diamonds.
Some gems: Alexander’s vocal with the show’s signature anthem “I Was Here” is powerful and effective; Sherwood-Mack’s impish knowing with the bawdy “Armanda’s Tarantella” is a comic delight; and Corey nails Columbina’s ballad of awareness and acceptance, “My Body Wasn’t Why.”
Also a standout is the small ensemble of musicians under the watchful direction of Robert Soricelli. Clemente’s set design and lighting by Dimitri
Vasilakos are perfectly apropos, simple and more than suitable.
Unfortunately, the ending of the show — a flash-forward with the troupe reporting from a glorious, otherworldly locale — does not land with visceral or theatrical reward. Whether that fault lies with the approach of the production or the piece itself is difficult to ascertain, but the end result is the same — unsatisfying.
Strong kudos to SLOC for presenting a small, unknown and worthy musical. It is indeed a glorious gift.
‘The Glorious Ones’
WHERE: Schenectady Light Opera Company, 427 Franklin St., Schenectady
WHEN: Thursday, Nov. 18-Sunday, Nov. 21
HOW MUCH: $20-$32
MORE INFO: 877-350-7378; www.sloctheater.org