Beauty that Beguiles and Charms

A dangerous beauty has arrived at the Pasadena Playhouse, and indeed, both dangerous and beautiful she is. At her heart is a story of freedom and education. I’m referring, of course, to the new musical “Dangerous Beauty” at the Pasadena Playhouse, which started previews on February 1 with an official opening of February 13 (we went last night). It was written by Jeannine Dominy, who wrote the screenplay for the 1998 movie of the same name, based on the book “The Honest Courtesan” by Margaret F. Rosenthal. Music was by Michele Brourman, and the lyrics were by Amanda McBroom.

Dangerous Beauty” tells the story of Veronica Franco, a real-life celebrated courtesan/poet of 16th century Venice. Veronica is an adventurous, intelligent, literate young woman in Venice, in a society filled with church leaders, senators, and of course, a collection of courtesans. While getting ready to solemnize the marriage of her friend, Beatrice Vernier to an elder nobleman, she runs into Beatrice’s brother, Marco Venier. Soon they have fallen in love, to the dismay of Marco’s father, Senator Peitro Venier, who remembers that Veronica’s mother, Paola Franco, was once a courtesan herself. He betrothes Marco to a nobleman’s daughter from Rome, Guilia de Lezze, for the value of the marriage in cementing alliances. This forces Marco to break it off with Veronica. As Veronica’s family is penniless, Veronica turns to her mothers profession as a courtesan—a highly paid, cultured prostitute like her mother and grandmother before her. At first Veronica is repelled by the idea, but once she discovers that courtesans are allowed access to libraries and education, she tentatively embraces the idea. Veronica quickly gains a reputation as a top courtesan, impressing the powerful men of Venice with her beauty, wit, and compassion. Marco finds it difficult to adjust to his new wife, who is a straight-laced church woman and is nothing like Veronica. He becomes jealous as she takes his friends and relatives as lovers. After Marco’s cousin Maffio, a poor bard who was once publicly upstaged by Veronica, attacks her, Marco rushes to her aid. They rekindle their romance and Veronica stops seeing clients. War breaks out between the Muslims in Turkey (Ottoman Empire) and Venice, and the city appeals to France for aid. Veronica is directed by the Senator to seduces the king of France and secures a military alliance. She does this to save the city, and Marco becomes despondent that she has broken her promise of fidelity. Veronica points out that she sacrificed their love for the good of the city, while he only did it to protect his family’s political standing, and Marco leaves for war angry. While the Senators are fighting at sea, a plague hits the city. Religious zealots take the war and plague as punishment for the city’s moral degradation, and the courtesans and rounded up and put on trial. Veronica is summoned to appear before the Inquisition on charges of witchcraft and refuses to name her clients. When it appears that she will be executed, she is urged to confess. But Veronica stands on the truth, and Marco publicly shames the Venetian ministers and senators into standing. The Inquisitor drops the charges of witchcraft, and Marco and Veronica reconcile.

I went into this musical completely unfamiliar with the story. I was expecting a dull, period musical with slow music. I was wrong. Through the course of this musical, I grew to care about these characters and to understand the society. A fair amount of this credit goes to the underlying story and book, but the director, Sheryl Kaller deserves some as well, for taking this complicated story and presenting it in a sensical fashion. Kaller drew from her ensemble some wonderful performances, with incredible layers and nuances (for example, the background movements of the other courtesans). It was just a spectacular to watch. The music has a much more modern and driving beat—you can hear a number of the songs from the show from the Dangerous Beauty website.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that I fell in love with the cast. Let’s start with the first tier. In the lead positions were Jenny Powers as Veronica Franco and James Snyder as Marco Venier. Powers has a smile that could melt the world—it is so beautiful. She brought charm and wit and a playfullness to the role that made her a pure delight to watch on stage. Combine this with a wonderful singing voice (if you’ve heard the cast album of Loving Repeating, she was Alice B Toklas), and I just melted. Her lover in the show, James Snyder, also had a wonderful playful stage presence, and an equally strong singing voice. There’s joy for either gender to watch in this show! These two were having fun, and it showed.

That doesn’t mean the rest of the top tier were slackers. I was particulary smitten by Megan McGinnis as Beatrice Venier—again, the combination of a beautiful face, great acting, and a wonderful singing voice won me over. Equally strong were Michael Rupert as Domenico Venier, Bryce Ryness as Maffio Veniter, and Laila Robins as Paola Franco. All were strong singers and actors, who truly brought their roles to life.

In the second tier are the characters we didn’t get to know as well through the story. This included John Antony as Marco’s father, Senator Pietro Venier and Morgan Weed as Guilia de Lezze, the cold church-devoted new wife of Marco Venier. It also included the various noblemen of Venice: Michael Baker (Bishop Della Torre); Marcus Choi (Minister Andrea Tron); Nigel Columbus (Ramberti), Joe Mandragona (Tintoretto), and Matthew Tyler (Grand Inquisitor).

The collected courtesans were harder to tell apart, but did a beautiful job with their dancing and singing. All were wonderful to watch; I was particularly smitten with Angel Reda (Imperia), Jessica Lee Keller (Elenda), Katherine Malak (Marina), and Jessica Vosk (Olympia). Rounding out the courtesans were Iresol Cardona (Livia), Meg Gillentine (Diana), and Angela Wildflower Polk (Angela).
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

The musical and movement of this show was also a thing of beauty. As I noted before, the music was by Michele Brourman with lyrics by Amanda McBroom. The orchestrations by Burce Coughlin brought the music to life, aided by the excellent musical direction of Fred Lassen, who conducted the 9 piece orchestra. Additional arrangements were by Ben Butler, with vocal design by Annmarie Milazzo. One minor music comments (perhaps due to the fact we saw a preview): it would be nice to have an energetic reprise during the curtain call (perhaps “Desire”), permitting a playout and providing an opportunity to showcase the orchestra for the audience. Turning to the movement side, Benoit-Swan Pouffer was effective and very ballet-like in style—the movements certainly were not either modern rock or tap. But they were effective and interesting to watch. Fight design was by Brian Danner.

The technical design of the production was excellent, befitting what we’ve come to expect from the Pasadena Playhouse. The set by Tom Buderwitz was excellent (we’ve seen his work before at numerous venues): he built a replica of a 16th century Venice on the Playhouse stage, which fit perfectly with the existing frescos in the facility. The lighting by Russell H. Champa made extensive use of moving lights and gobos, and did a wonderful job of conveying mood and intent. The sound by Jon Weston was clear and crisp. The costumes by Soyon An were a mix of period and pop, and included elegant masks and gowns, as well as fighting gear. Rounding out the technical and production staff were: Angela Sidlow (Company Manager), Gary Wissman (Production Supervisor), Joe Witt (Stage Manager), Mary Michele Miner (Stage Manager), and Joe Langworth (Associate Director). “Dangerous Beauty” was produced by Sara Katz, Susan Dieta, and Tara Smith. Ann E. Wareham was associate producer.

On the drive home from the Playhouse, our thoughts turned to whether we would be renewing our subscription. Part of the problem was that the Pasadena Playhouse had gotten very expensive—on the order of $400 per subscription for 6 shows (contrast this with $180 for the Colony and approx. $120 for REP East). Based on mission, we felt the Playhouse was competing with the Geffen, La Jolla Playhouse, and the Rubicon, presenting a mix of rediscovered older gems and new work (as opposed to the tours of the Ahamanson or Pantages, musical revivals of La Mirada or Cabrillo, or American dramatic fare of Colony or REP East). New work does justify a slightly higher subscription price (ETA: As does a company that uses 100% Equity actors, for that incurs higher costs), but not where the Playhouse was. We might consider resubscribing if the post-bankruptcy economics permits the Playhouse to return to reasonable subscription rates.

Dangerous Beauty continues at The Pasadena Playhouse through March 6, 2011. Tickets may be purchased through the Playhouse; I do believe I’ve seen some weekday productions up on Goldstar.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Next weekend brings two shows: “The Marvelous Wonderettes at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12, and “Adding Machine: The Musical at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble on February 13. The third weekend of February is another with two shows: “Rock of Ages at The Pantages Theatre on February 19, and “33 Variations at the Ahmanson Theatre for February 20. February closes with “Moonlight and Magnolias” at The Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also busy. It begins with a Noel Paul Stookey concert at McCabes on March 4. March 5 is the MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at TBH. The first two weekends of March are also the Spring Musical, Evita”, at Van Nuys High School; we’re likely going on Saturday, March 12. Sunday, March 13 is “The Cradle Will Rock” at the Blank Theatre. The weekend of March 19 is currently open, but that probably won’t last for long. Lastly, March 26 brings “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Repertory East. April will bring the Renaissance Faire, “The Producers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, “The All Night Strut” at the Colony Theatre, and (pending ticketing) Brian Stokes Mitchell at the new Valley Performing Arts Center.