And For This They Named A Sandwich After Him?

Count of Monte Cristo: The Musical (HFF)userpic=fringeFringe festivals serve many purposes, all centered around the notion of having a low cost, short run production of some form of show. Sometimes the show is mature and just can be produced inexpensively. Sometimes the show is a simple artistic expression. Sometimes the show is the first step in a long journey for a production, allowing for audience and reviewer feedback as part of the maturation process. Understanding these varied goals is important to assessing a show, and particularly relevant to the show we saw Sunday afternoon at the Lounge Theatre (FB) as part of the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB): “The Count of Monte Cristo: The Musical” (FB) (Kelly D’Angelo† (FB) (Book and Lyrics); Matt Dahan (FB) (Music)). This is because the writer’s note makes clear that this is the first-ever production of this show. It had to be trimmed to fit the time constraints of Fringe shows (meaning that an hour of material was cut — more on that later), and it was produced with minimal sets and minimal rehearsal (and funded by Indiegogo). Taking all that into consideration, this was a very good first production. There were some flaws (which we’ll get into), but that is to be expected at this point in the journey. As the Count of Monte Cristo says, “Wait and hope.”
[† I’ll note this is an effort of the Female Playwrights Initiative]

The Count of Monte Cristo is a classic French novel by Alexandre Dumas, written in 1844…. which I have never read. It tells the story of a wrongful imprisonment, love, revenge, and righting the wrongs. It is broad in scope and broad in time. I know all of this not because I have read the book (which, alas, I haven’t), but because I’ve read the Wikipedia entry. Reading the book should not be a prerequisite for seeing a play, musical, or movie: they must be capable of standing on their own and providing sufficient context to make the audience member excited about the story and to want to go and read the book. In particular, the story needs to be compelling and theatrical. It needs to be able to draw in the patron who might only know of the title. This is certainly true of The Count of Monte Cristo — if they haven’t read the book, at least they’ve heard of it (or the namesake tasty sandwich). It is also a property with proven theatricality: there have been numerous TV, movie, and miniseries adaptations, and there have been past play and even musical versions (including a version by Frank Wildhorn, which really isn’t a surprise).

So why do another adaptation now? I can guess at a number of reasons. First, although it has been on the stage, there hasn’t been a definitive version that has stuck around. Second, the success of Les Misérables has led to numerous other attempts to produce similar shows from similar large scope novels. Two examples of this are the recent musical adapations of Tale of Two Cities (a musicalization of the Dicken’s novel) and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (a musicalization of just a slice of War and Peace). Plus there’s that sandwich. So I can see the reasoning behind this. The question is: Did D’Angelo and Dahan succeed in their effort to become the next Boublil and Schönberg? The answer is… the jury is out.

As I noted earlier, The Count of Monte Cristo is a novel broad in scope, with loads and loads of characters (similar to Les Misérables). I’m not going to try to summarize the story here — go to the Wikipedia page to read all the twists and turns. To provide sufficient context for this discussion, suffice it to say that it tells the story of Edmond Dantès, a sailor on the verge of success who is wrongly imprisoned, losing not only his good name, but his fiancee in the process. In jail, he figures out with the aid of another prisoner the individuals responsible for his imprisonment. After he escapes and recovers a vast treasure, he reappears as The Count of Monte Cristo, and ingratiates himself with those who jailed him (who do not recognize him). He then works on them to carry out his revenge, leaving almost all of them dead.

Gee. Not that positive of a story. But then again, 19th century literature often wasn’t. Just look at Les Misérables. But that worked on the stage. A similar story of revenge, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, also worked (although not originally). Then again, Tale of Two Cities crashed and burned on Broadway. The lesson to be taken from this is that it takes a lot of work, and luck, and getting it right to succeed.

Alas, The Count of Monte Cristo: The Musical is not there yet. The Fringe production was good — and was a good first start — but there is a long way to go to whip this puppy in a shape that will succeed on the Great White Way. Where are the problems?

  • Length. The production we saw was two hours…. and that was after an hour was cut from it, and with no intermission. This is simply too long to hold most audiences. Although the book is a classic and a masterpiece, there is simply too much there to include it all. There needs to be some tight trimming to move the story along, focus on the significant pieces, figure out how to “show instead of say”. Les Misérables was big, and they found a way to keep the energy up and the story going. Gone With The Wind: The Musical was also long, and it failed. The entire production, with music and intermission, should clock in under 3 hours.
  • Music. This show attempts to follow the Les Miz and Evita models of being almost exclusively through sung. That’s great for opera, but for it to succeed as a musical the musical numbers need to do what musical numbers do: be memorable, illustrate character, illustrate motives, illustrate emotion, illustrate inner conflicts. Consider what numbers you remember from Les Mez: “Castle on a Cloud”, “Master of the House”, “Do You Hear The People Sing?”, “Red and Black”. Now consider the numbers in Monte Cristo. The current numbers are primarily a scaffolding for dialogue. What do you remember after the show? Perhaps “Carnival”. A successful musical requires memorable numbers that sink into the consciousness and become earworms. Think about how the numbers can be reworked to both lighten the show and be memorable. Think about how they could convey through the music instead of through words. You might end up with some larger song and movement numbers, and have to tighten the dialogue more.
  • The Story. A major problem with Count of Monte Cristo is that it is a downer. Most of the characters are killed off, and it is questionable how much sympathy there is for those who remain, except for the young couple. Think about how Jean Val Jean was redeemed at the end of Les Miz. Think about what you can do to get the audience invested in the characters and want that happy ending. There may need to be some time spent showing why the significant relationships are what they are. For the end, give them a clear happy ending. I’m not sure that’s there now.
  • The Timeline. Reading the production notes, this takes place over a 20 year period, with most of it taking place in a single year. The conveying of the passage of time gets lost on the audience.

These may seem like complaints. They are not. What is there now is a good start — this is the first production of the show. The best shows are not borne perfect; they go through tryout after tryout, cuts additions and changes, until they reach their final version. Wait, work, and hope. Don’t be imitative, be innovative. Figure out a new way to present this story that grabs and excites. It can be done, but work is required. Some good news is that, despite the cutting of one hour, much of the story could be followed. That means the production team is moving in the right direction. Figure out what portions that were cut can stay cut, and what needs to be judiciously returned.

I’ve spent a few paragraphs talking about where improvement was required. Let’s now look at what worked well. I liked the two opening scenes. The first choral number, “Break the Bread” set the tone well, although it did make one think this might be a framing device similar to Man of La Mancha. The initial dockyard scene at For Saint-Jean also worked well, although the telegraphing of the evil characters was a tad broad. The Carnival scene was also enjoyable, and the scenes with Albert and Valentine together were quite touching. I also enjoyed the trial scene.

For a Fringe musical, this had a very large cast. In the lead position was David Meinke (FB) as Edmond Dantès/The Count of Monte Cristo. Meinke had the appropriate sense of evil and plotting about him, although his voice seemed to need a bit more strength to fit the role better. This might be correctable with suitable amplification, although that needs to be balanced with the other characters that do not need amplification.

All of the other actors played multiple roles in addition to their main named ones. There are a few I would like to single out because they stood out in my mind in some way. First and foremost is Mary Nepi (FB) as Valentine de Villefort. This young lady was not only beautiful, but had an operatic quality voice with a lot of power behind it. I hope she goes far with that voice — it was just lovely. She combined this with a touching and nuanced performance — I particularly remember her facial expressions in a number of scenes. Very nicely done. Another strong performer was Jillian Easton (FB) as Lucille Debray. She combined her strong voice with a very interesting look and performance, and again was a delight to watch. The last female voice I’d like to highlight is Laurine Price (FB) (Mercédès / Madame Danglars). Again, a strong voice combined with a strong performance. On the male side of the room, a very strong performance was given by Anthony Gruppuso (FB) as Gérard de Villefort. He combined a supurb singing voice with excellent acting. I also enjoyed the performance of David Zack (FB) (Ferand Danglars) (who we saw in Closer than Ever) — another lovely voice and lovely performance. Lastly, I enjoyed the performance of Bryan Vickery (FB) as Albert Danglars both for its emotions and its quality. Others in the large cast were: Parnell Damone Marcano (FB) (Caderousse); Teresa Tracy (FB) (Héloïse de Villefort); Anderson Piller (Edward de Villefort); Henry Kaiser (FB) (Abbé Faria); Stephen Novick (FB) (Andrea Cavalcanti / Young Dantes); TR Krupa (FB) (Franz D’Epinay); Todd Andrew Ball (FB) (Noirtier de Villefort / Monsieur Morrel); Richelle Meiss (FB) (Luiga Vampa / Young Mercédès); and Amanda Walter (FB) (Barrois / The Dancer).

The Count of Monte Cristo was directed and produced by the author, Kelly D’Angelo (FB), who did a good job bringing quality performances from the acting team given the amount of material and the short rehearsal time. Not to fault Ms. D’Angelo’s direction, but a future production might benefit from having a different person direct. Often an author can be too close to the material, making it harder to see where difficulties lies or where material is extraneous (or where new material might be needed) … this is often due to the material being so well known in the author’s mind. That additional point of view can be vital in moving this piece forward. As no credit was given for movement or general choreography, presumably Ms. D’Angelo served that role as well. The dances and movement were adequate given the limited Fringe stage space and rehearsal periods; again, getting some third-party choreography advice might improve the presentation and increase the excitement. However, care must be taken to not let the effect overtake the content. Matt Dahan (FB) , the composer, served as music director, accompanying the production on an electronic keyboard that provided good sound for the facility. It will be interesting to see how the music works with full orchestration.

As this was the Fringe, set design was minimal: some boxes, a painted screen, chairs, and a table loaded with stuff. These sufficed for the Fringe production. The costumes, designed by Amanda Walter (FB), were sufficient for the Fringe, which only needed to hint at the period and the situation. Future productions may have the freedom and funding for more realistic period costumes. The lighting design of Brandon Baruch was sufficient for Fringe purposes, given that multiple shows share the same space (such as Merely Players, which we saw the previous evening) and lighting can’t be individually adjusted. In general, reds were used to convey tense moods, with other colors conveying other moods. Additional technical credits: Nick Mizrahi (FB) (Fight Designer); Erica Lawrence (FB) (Stage Manager). There was no credit for sound design.

The Count of Monte Cristo has two more performances at the Fringe: June 26th at 7:30 pm and June 27th at 7:30 PM. If you’re a fan of The Count of Monte Cristo, or want to see a broad epic scope musical as it is first getting off the ground, I’d recommend this to you. It was an extremely good first step on the long road to the Big Leagues. Tickets are available through the Fringe website.

[ETA: Dining Notes. Looking for a quick place to eat between this show and our next show at the Complex, we discovered a wonderful European restaurant just a few blocks away: Sabina’s European Kitchen (FB). The two of us split a delightful pork tenderloin “brasso style” with an additional side of roasted vegetables, and it was perfect. There were a number of other things on the menu I’d love to have tried — I haven’t had schnitzel in ages — but it was too warm outside to bring leftovers home. We’ll remember Sabina’s for the next time we have theatre in the area (alas, the Elephant Stages complex may be going away 🙁 — quick, someone buy and save the building).]

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: The Fringe craziness ends with Medium Size Me, (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Thursday 6/25 and Might As Well Live: Stories By Dorothy Parker (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Saturday. June ends with our annual drum corps show in Riverside on Sunday. July begins with “Murder for Two” at the Geffen Playhouse (FB) on July 3rd, and “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on July 4th. July 11th brings “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). The following weekend brings “The History Boys” at the Stella Adler Theatre (FB) on Saturday (Goldstar), and “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) on Sunday.  July 25th brings “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB), with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August starts with “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB), and is followed by the summer Mus-ique show, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB). After that we’ll need a vacation! September right now is mostly open, with the only ticketed show being “The Diviners” at REP East (FB) and a hold-the-date for “First Date” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October will bring another Fringe Festival: the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB). October also has the following as ticketed or hold-the-dates: Kelrik Production (FB)’s Urinetown at the Monroe Forum Theatre (Hold for Sat 10/3);  “Mrs. A. Lincoln” at The Colony Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/10); and  “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/17). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.