“Roman Holiday,” a musical running briefly at San Francisco’s Golden Theater in a traditional pre-Broadway tryout, grafts more than a dozen songs by Cole Porter onto the 1953 movie that turned Audrey Hepburn into a star. It is the story of a young princess of an unnamed country who plays hooky in Rome for 24 hours with a man who she doesn’t know is a newspaperman (Gregory Peck in the movie.) He recognizes her, and with the aid of his photographer, is planning to turn her foray into a scoop.
The musical has added two characters to the movie. Francesca (portrayed with old-fashioned seductive verve by Sara Chase) is the Italian girlfriend of the photographer, Irving (Jarrod Spector, best-known for his Tony-nominated performance in Beautiful.) Francesca is a chanteuse, which is how the show shoehorns Porter hits “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine” and “You Do Something For Me.” The other character, the Countess, is Princess Anne’s dotty aunt, and she may well exist simply so that the hilarious Georgia Engel could be added to the cast.
Co-producer Paul Blake and director Marc Bruni are the same team behind “Beautiful: The Carol King Musical,” which also had a Broadway try-out in San Francisco.
In my review of Beautiful when it opened on Broadway in 2014, I wrote that “the story serves as an efficient delivery system for Carole King’s surprisingly diverse hits – not much more, nothing less,” but that the cast was its secret weapon.
It’s tempting to call “Roman Holiday” an inefficient delivery system for Cole Porter’s hits. There’s less rationale for its existence. Broadway is not exactly unexplored territory for the witty and elegant composer, and Porter’s lyrics don’t quite fit the plot. But in the spirit of try-out, I’ll root for the show, which is designed by top Broadway talent, including costume designer Catherine Zuber (who delights in War Paint — especially those hats!) and set designer Todd Rosenthal (whose sets for August Osage County and The M-f with the Hat were so impressive) – although he might want to rethink the animated projection of a little cartoon scooter traveling the map of Rome, a poor substitute for the travelogue that was the movie.
I wish I could say something like: The musical’s leads are so good they nearly erase the memory of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in the movie. But all I can say is that Drew Gehling (who played the hot doctor in Waitress) as Joe the newspaperman and Stephanie Styles as Princess Anne are attractive performers with lovely voices.
“Roman Holiday” is on stage at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theater through June 18, 2017.
Photographs by Joan Marcus