The New Group’s presentation of Cyrano in a musical adaptation by Erica Schmidt of the iconic Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmund Rostand soars with the entrance of Peter Dinklage as Cyrano. Stationed in the darkened audience, bellowing out witty insults to the actor, Montgomery played by Scott Stangland, he surprises. It is the first of a series of enlightenings by the astounding actor who keeps us enthralled to the conclusion. As Dinklage spirits himself into the light, he signifies he is the driving force of the play’s action. His casting as Cyrano is spot-on. For Cyrano is a genius with poetry and epithets. He is a charismatic, charming and ferocious swordsman, clever in besting all foes in every situation. Indeed, in his genius, he is similar to Tyrion Lannister, the brilliant, good-hearted warrior in the smashing series Game of Thrones for which Dinklage garnered four Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe.
Intuiting divine intelligence and rapier wit, Dinklage’s Cyrano shines. He is riveting and I say this not having watched Game of Thrones avidly, as many of the others in the audience most probably had done, mourning its conclusion this year. That said, the role of Cyrano de Bergerac, even in a version without music, Dinklage most certainly would have triumphed in, with or without the humongous nose attachment. In this version he looks attractively normal. However, when reference is made to his nose, he responds with a subtle gesture invoking his height. We understand he is twitting himself and in this instance, demeaning the disdainful and villainous De Guiche (the superb Ritchie Coster).
Dinklage is an actor’s actor so he brings thoughtfulness and grist to each and every character he undertakes. The gesture invoking his height is enough; the obviously fake prosthetic nose is unnecessary.
Jumping to an immediate conclusion it would appear to be a shame that a good deal of the poetic beauty, humor and grace of Rostand’s Cyrano speeches (which Dinklage would have delivered with thrilling verve, power and panache), have vanished. They have been supplanted by soulful melodies that sound similar with a few exceptions. The music changes the mood and tenor of Cyrano de Bergerac into Cyrano which Rostand fans may find difficult getting used to. No matter, there is enough to provide interest in this version which is filled with symbolism and irony, even to the point where Cyrano shades most everyone except his friend Le Bret. Schmidt alludes to this at the outset when Cyrano speaks in the darkened audience.
This version has a somberness not necessarily found in other versions of Cyrano de Bergerac. The character’s heartbreak is also more manifest as is Roxanne’s sorrow at the conclusion. Even the music picks up the darker tones, so a revision of understanding is necessary for this version. Cyrano, Christian and Roxanne are more tragic victims whose choices are made rashly and come to haunt them after they are made.
Nevertheless, this Cyrano is inspired by the older play via its plot twists and masking of identities. The arc of development is also similar and the addition of musical numbers elucidate the characterizations and love themes. For example the opening number sung by Jasmine Cephas Jones’ Roxanne “Someone to Say” is particularly lovely and tuneful. The melody’s themes of love are reprised by Christian (Blake Jenner), who wants what Roxanne wants. After he meets Cyrano who befriends him as per Roxanne’s wishes, their union is guaranteed; Cyrano is a man of his word and a man of action who can get things done. Thus, they plot to woo Roxanne with his looks and Cyrano’s intellect and passionate heart for her…masked by his poetic words.
In their exchange, Cyrano will make Christian “eloquent, and Christian will make Cyrano “handsome.” For the love of Roxanne, two men will make up a whole, adorable and perfect man. Hence, we are reminded of another of the play’s themes: no one man has everything a woman wants or needs. And if he looks that perfect, percentages are he isn’t and something is up!
The music is by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner and the lyrics are by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser. Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner are members of the Grammy Award-winning band The National and Matt Berninger is the group’s singer/songwriter. Their score is ambitious and for those who enjoy their music, Cyrano will resound and the machinations of love, intrigue, humor and irony, with Dinklage as Cyrano and Jones as Roxanne (in Hamilton she played the mistress who lures Hamilton into a blackmail scheme), will just be icing on the delicious cake.
This quasi “modernized,” Cyrano iteration shows the arc of the plot development, moving the story of Cyrano, Roxanne and Christian along the shores of romantic tragedy with love realized too late at the foot of death and sorrow. The themes of exceptionalism, the contrast of the beauty of the soul vs. the superficiality and vapidity of prizing outer appearance, ride high in Schmidt’s rendering. And irony underscores the relationships between Roxanne and Christian, and Cyrano and everyone else. As Dinklage’s Cyrano slips in and out of the shadows, he stirs the action while all along hiding his true feelings, like a lovable and poignant grand puppet master pulling everyone’s strings.
With scenic design by Christine Jones and Amy Rubin, we are transported to locations that enhance the eventful through-line: the theater, the pastry shop, Roxanne’s wisteria-laden balcony (beautifully rendered), the battlefield (with accompanying thunderous fire and flashes of distant cannonade), and finally the nunnery. Each are suggested with a simplicity of design. Also, they are enhanced with acutely appropriate and well-thought out props and effects (snow, leaves, etc.), accompanied by sound effects (Dan Moses Schreier).
The back wall, with hundreds of words is a nice thematic touch as are other elements of spectacle, superbly coordinated to emphasize emotional feeling. For example, during the pastry shop scene, the actors perform balletic movements as they work with flour and dough, mixing, then shaping their rolls and pastries. This is fine choreography by Jeff and Rick Kuperman, as Cyrano sings the haunting “Need for Nothing.” The combined effect among the bakers, and Cyrano and his friend Le Bret (the fine Josh A. Dawson), ratchets up the mood and further draws us to empathize with Cyrano’s situation with Roxanne. Indeed, we consider and admire that his elevated, spiritual character does not need material things. Again, what this production beautifully manifests in its design elements reflects Cyrano’s ethos as anti-materialistic, filled with faith and hope in the power of words and the unseen spiritual realm.
For those unfamiliar with the dynamics of plot and characterization of Cyrano de Bergerac, they will appreciate the twists of fate and the evolution of Christian’s character. They will also enjoy the emotional strength and magnanimity of Cyrano, as he helps a rival succeed in love, and restrains his own feelings. It is an act of pure goodness and sacrifice that Roxanne only realizes at the conclusion when she understands that in grieving Christian, it was Cyrano’s soul she loves.
The ending of this version of Cyrano is heavy-handed. As such it removes the life-blood of feeling that could be experienced when Cyrano dies. Roxanne’s crying out with too late tears becomes maudlin and melodramatic.
In the original version and a few later iterations I’ve seen, Cyrano de Bergerac is in bed and dying of a hidden head wound. Conquering the pain and his fading strength, he cheerfully tries to rally hope with Roxanne by his bedside. She has realized his love for her and expresses her love to him. Cyrano sees in the distance his old and most ancient of enemies that he’s fought all his life. He draws his sword once more to fight and flails at the reprobates all of us encounter and must overcome in life: “falsehood,” “prejudice” and “compromise.” When his sword drops from his grip as he dies, Roxanne covers his face with kisses.
This ending of Cyrano haplessly fighting these wicked spirits resonates for us especially today. Is it a missed opportunity NOT to conclude with the ancient evils Cyrano battled throughout his life and to his end, evils timeless and modern: “falsehood, prejudice, compromise”? To my mind, yes.
Despite the conclusion I enjoyed this intriguing and effort-filled musical of Cyrano for its performances, the choreography and movement (the battle scenes are unusual and excellent), and the risks taken by the writer/director and the Dessners, Matt Berninger and Carin Besser to form a new approach toward a timeless play.
Finally, kudos to the creatives who made Cyrano come thrillingly alive: Christine Jones and Amy Rubin (scenic design) Tom Broecker (costume design), Jeff Croiter (lighting design), Dan Moses Schreier (sound design), Tommy Kurzman (hair, wig and make-up design), Ted Arthur (music direction), Kristy Norter (music coordinator), Mary-Mitchell Campbell (music supervision and arrangements). Bravo to all!
A developmental production of Cyrano was presented by Goodspeed Musicals in August 2018. This version in its New York premiere runs with one intermission at the Daryl Roth Theatre (101 East 15th St.) until 22 December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.