Peter Dinklage’s singing voice would not normally qualify him for a role in a musical, unless in a Disney animated movie as a singing rhinoceros. But Rex Harrison couldn’t really sing either, and he was just right for “My Fair Lady.”
In several ways, the star of “Game of Thrones” is an inspired hire for a musical adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac….Dinklage proves once again to be a terrific actor, with a deep commanding voice (when speaking), and the character’s bravado, his hurt and his yearning memorably etched on his expressive face.
But “Cyrano” is no “My Fair Lady”…The production is well acted and effectively designed. The score… has a haunting appeal. But “Cyrano” is missing an ingredient that’s essential to the story – in a word, panache.
Peter Dinklage’s singing voice would not normally qualify him for a role in a musical, unless in a Disney animated movie as a singing rhinoceros. But Rex Harrison couldn’t really sing either, and he was just right for My Fair Lady.
In several ways, the star of Game of Thrones is an inspired hire for a musical adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. When Dinklage as Cyrano first confesses to a friend that he loves Roxanne, he says:
“You think I’m unlovable. I’m no fool. What woman could love me with this this….”
And then, he makes a sweeping gesture with both hands that takes in his 4’5” frame.
He may or may not have said “nose” at this point; I don’t even remember. Unlike other productions based on Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, Dinklage wears no fake nose in The New Group’s Off-Broadway production. He doesn’t need to. Dinklage also proves once again to be a terrific actor, with a deep commanding voice (when speaking), and the character’s bravado, his hurt and his yearning memorably etched on his expressive face.
And as in My Fair Lady, which had Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle to sing beautifully enough for both leads, Cyrano’s Roxanne is Jasmine Cephas Jones, who originated the roles of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in Hamilton.
But, though both My Fair Lady and Cyrano are musical adaptations of classic plays, the analogy really stops here. Cyrano is no My Fair Lady.
Click on any photograph by Monique Carboni to see it enlarged.
Erica Schmidt’s script is faithful to the basic story, although a bit streamlined: Cyrano (Dinklage) is in love with Roxanne (Cephas Jones), but she is in love with the handsome Christian (the handsome Blake Jenner), and he in love with her. Cyrano agrees to supply the words that Christian lacks in order for Christian to woo Roxanne. Romance and tragedy ensue.
The production is well acted and effectively designed. The score by the Grammy-winning brothers Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner of the indie band The National, although unlikely to achieve iconic musical theater status, has a haunting appeal. But Cyrano is missing an ingredient that’s essential to the story – in a word, panache.
Early on, even Roxanne proclaims Cyrano to be “a poet, a scholar and the best swordsman in the city.” The character of Cyrano is so famously prized for his panache that the original play introduced the French word “panache” into the English language.
Dinklage could certainly have pulled off such panache, but he’s given little opportunity to do so. There is little swordplay, and it’s staged without flair. The production simply eliminates the famous comic aria in which Cyrano outshines his tormenters by coming up with far more imaginative insults about his own big nose. One can understand why, if Cyrano no longer has a big nose, Schmidt might want to get rid of what is the centerpiece of every other Cyrano I’ve ever seen – but couldn’t she have come up with a different showcase for Cyrano’s wit? In place of panache, this musical is….earnest.
Rostand’s play was originally written in verse, and every other English translation of the play I’ve attended has made an effort to communicate that poetry. The lyrics by Matt Berninger of The National and Carin Besser are an inadequate substitute, often either banal or precious. When Cyrano first confesses his love of Roxanne to a friend, the refrain he sings is:
Have you ever wanted something
so badly you cannot breathe,
have you ever loved someone madly?
When he first speaks (sings) to Roxanne herself, hiding in the bushes below her balcony and pretending to be Christian:
The way I feel is like falling stars
Diving into cold ocean waves….
Not every line in the show is a clunker, and music has its own poetry, of course, regardless of the words. But that actually presents another problem with this Cyrano. Christian’s beauty is supposed to be only skin-deep; that’s why he needs Cyrano to supply his soul. Yet Blake Jenner gets songs to sing that are at least as lyrical as everybody else’s, even when he’s singing about how he’s not lyrical in “Someone to Say”
My father told me letters and books weren’t meant for the son of a soldier.
Courage and steel, the trials of the real world are what matter and all that should mold you.
God what I’d do to have the one thing that you have that I never will.
You have something worth giving. A reason for living. All I do well is
That’s actually one of the wittiest lines in Cyrano. It’s too bad that it’s drowned out by Jenner continuing with the rest of the lovely song in a voice so beautiful that he was a series regular on Glee.
A creative team taking Rostand’s lead might have written a comic number for Christian that demonstrated his lack of verbal gifts rather than having him sing about them so eloquently.
Cyrano is on stage at Daryl Roth Theater (101 East 15th Street, East of Union Square Park, New York, N.Y., 10003) through December 22, 2019
Cyrano. Adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt from Cyrano De Bergerac By Edmond Rostand. Music by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner of The National, lyrics by Matt Berninger of The National and Carin Besser. choreography by Jeff And Rick Kuperman, scenic design by Christine Jones and Amy Rubin, costume design by Tom Broecker, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier featuring Ritchie Coster, Josh A. Dawson, Peter Dinklage, Hillary Fisher, Josh Franklin, Christopher Gurr, Blake Jenner, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Nehal Joshi, Grace McLean, Erika Olson and Scott Stangland. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell