Like Brooklyn’s Gallery Players, the Astoria Performing Arts Center has found a niche in reviving recent Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. Previous ventures have included solid productions of A New Brain and Proof, but their latest offering, an energetic revival of the short-lived 1997 musical Triumph of Love, proves that some shows that die in Manhattan are better off left buried on the island. A blithe and breezy adaptation of Marivaux’s 1732 comic adventure, Triumph of Love chronicles the efforts of the brazen Princess Leonide to woo the man she worships from afar. Disguised as a dapper gentleman, with her friend and accomplice Corine in tow, she conspires to penetrate the philosopher Hermocrates’ stately Greco-French garden, which is both sanctuary and prison to her beloved. But when the object of her affection turns out to be Agis, the rightful Prince of Sparta (and inconveniently plotting her own murder), Leonide must figure out how to reveal her affection without losing her heart or her head.
Sound confusing? James Magruder’s scatter-brained plot ties itself in knots that are infuriating rather than intriguing, and the uneven writing—which pairs the elevated rhythms of Shakespeare with the crass comedy of a bawdy commedia dell’arte revue—fails to create a beguiling (or even believable) world. Instead, like the characters, the audience is left running in virtual circles, chasing down any semblance of connection.
But, in defense of APAC, the central problem isn’t the direction (mostly efficient and well-paced) or the acting (which ranges from excellent to strained). Under the confident baton of Jeffrey Campos, the orchestra makes lovely music, Adam Coffia's period costumes are perfectly draped and dazzling, and Michael P. Kramer’s multi-level set is a sumptuous land of fountains and ivy-covered walls. No, the problem here is the show itself, which presents a spectacular hurdle—making palatable entertainment from mostly forgettable songs and an inconsequential story.
In fact, New York Times critic Ben Brantley called the original Broadway production a “flat-footed parade of raunchy double-entendres and double takes that give new meaning to the phrase ‘low comedy.’”
So why revive a show that was so derisively dismissed? It’s pure wishful thinking, and you have to give director Brian Swasey credit for rising to the task. His mad-cap direction is filled with spirit and sass, and he has assembled a cast who give the show their all and then some.
The winning Abby Baum fairly bursts with enthusiasm as the cagey Princess Leonide; her ebullience doesn’t create much dimension, but she sings prettily and gestures determinedly. As the object of her affection, Tripp Pettigrew doesn’t do much besides pace and sputter, but he valiantly strives to match Baum’s vivaciousness.
After arriving in the garden, Corine (Ashley Speigel) joins forces with a jester, Harlequin (Philip Deyesso), and the gardener, Dimas (Justin Birdsong), to try to help Leonide accomplish her goal. Charged with unearthing comedy from the most vulgar and banal of sources, the trio find some humor in the playful vaudevillian romp “Henchmen Are Forgotten.” But Speigel and Deyesso all too often fall into fits of mugging that distract from the other action on stage, falling into the comedy trap of trying much too hard. The always excellent Birdsong is reduced to resurrecting laughs (which he does) from such sexual innuendo-prone words as “tuber.”
The more serious characters fare better. Rational siblings Hermocrates (Richard Rice Alan) and Hesione (Erika Amato) are both seduced by Leonide’s charms—Hermocrates knows Leonide is a woman; Hesione is convinced she is a man. Alan finds some refreshing levity in his sensual awakening, but Amato is hands-down the star of this production. It helps that she has the best song, the heartbreaking ballad “Serenity,” but she articulates every inch of her tightly laced character so persuasively that hers is the fate you lament at the end of the production. Bewitched and bullied by the scheming Leonide, Hesione serves as the emotional anchor in this overwhelmingly silly story. In fact, Amato’s elegant presence and velvety voice are the best reasons to revisit this show.
Ironically, Betty Buckley’s performance as the tortured Hesione was one of the very few praised elements (and the only Tony Award-nomination) in the original Triumph of Love. Jeffrey Stock (music) and Susan Birkenhead (lyrics) not only gave her the sweet “Serenity,” but also the opening (sung) lines of the show. An announcement that beautiful and commanding will certainly grab an audience’s attention long enough to entice them into taking the journey—it seems that it pays to be the sole voice of reason in a land of nonsense.