Thoughts On New Musical 'Cyrano' With Peter Dinklage


With the news that “Cyrano” starring “Game of Thrones” Peter Dinklage will have a new production off-Broadway production in October, by the New Group, I thought I’d re-publish my piece when the show was trying out at Goodspeed Musical’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester last August and September.

Here is what I wrote in September after the show had closed.

I just got back from the penultimate performance of a new musical "Cyrano,"  at Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. 

It is being called a "developmental production" and critics were not invited to attend during the month-long run. (Critics are not invited for most --although not all -- productions at this theater.

I decided to check out the show at the very end of its run to assess what was on stage. I purchased my own ticket.

Call this a "developmental review."

But first some background notes:

Background Note No. 1 The show is staged by Dinklage's wife, Erica Schmidt, a talented director who also wrote the musical’s book which is adapted from the classic 1897 drama “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Edmond Rostand, The music is by three members of the rock band The National — Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner and Matt Berninger — with lyrics by Berringer and Carin Besser. The show also stars Haley Bennett (the films “The Magnificent Seven,” "The Girl on the Train”) who plays Roxanne, the love interest in the show.

Background Note No. 2: This is hardly the first time "Cyrano" was adapted as a musical.In 1973,  I saw a musical version in an out-of-town tryout. (It wasn't a "developmental production" then and critics were seen as part of the process in helping guide a show onto Broadway.) Christopher Plummer starred in that musical version which Michael Kidd choreographed and directed. Plummer won a Tony for his stunning performance when it moved on to New York. It had a book by Anthony Burgess ("A Clockwork Orange") who also wrote the lyrics -- which were terrific. I loved the show though it was short-lived on Broadway and closed after 49 performances. Side note: Christian was played by Mark Lamos. Yes, that Mark Lamos.

There was another musical version of "Cyrano" in 1993 on Broadway by a Dutch creative team. Few remember that one. 

Background Note No. 3:  The Goodspeed production was a hot ticket because of Dinklage, who is one of the stars in the popular HBO series "Game of Thrones."

And one more background note regarding the Goodspeed show: The musical's run was cut short when the actor playing Christian, Blake Jenner (TV's "Glee"), announced that he was taking an early exit because of a television opportunity. (He had the contractural right to do this.) The announcement was made Aug. 13 and it is pretty incredulous that in that time another actor could not be found for at least that extended week's run which would have started later this week. Whether it be for financial reason or because  the company didn't want to go through the process of adapting to a new leading actor, I don't know. I just don't buy that another actor couldn't be found,  One more thing, according to a Goodspeed spokesman,  said there was no commercial enhancement money for this production and that Goodspeed is the sole producer for the run.


That all said, what did I think of the show? 

Dinklage is dazzling. Most of the music is lovely,, moody, evocative, and all of a piece: just right for this particular, more modern feel for the play. The staging is smart, fluid, and grounded... Lovely touches of movement and some beautiful visual motifs. Mostly fine singing, too. Dinklage has a haunting low register and his numbers are crafted for his strengths. He is as spellbinding in his songs as he is in speech.

The first act is terrific. The second act needs work.  But the ending is a letdown, but nothing some restaging and rethinking can't address.

And no, it's not about the nose.

Though Cyrano's nose is mentioned a few times in the beginning of the show, it's not about that singular distinction. Dinklage has a song "When I Was Born," and in it he sings fiercely of parental rejection of his physical self. But everyone around his adult self sees him as a sui genesis talent, for his skills as a poet, wordsmith, soldier  and swordsman -- though we hardly see any swordplay here, which is just fine. It's not really about the swords either.

What this production gets mostly right is how it cuts right to the heart of the matter.

Dinklage's authority is all we need to believe that he is a force of nature, and a rather haunted one at that with multitude of layers of loneliness, hurt and pride beneath all his charm, cleverness and assurance. Dinklage is a brilliant, very human Cyrano, as captivating, inspiring and heartbreaking as any I have seen in the role.

By skipping the endless nose references and letting this Cyrano speak for himself about his own regard is an intriguing approach to the story.  (All the attention on nose prosthetics always bothered me whenever I saw a production of the play or musical.)

As the adapter, Schmidt has done some marvelous editing, and distilling  scenes and cutting to their most human essence. The first act flies by and the entire show clocks in at just two hours. 

In a play that is so full of posturing, speechifying, melodrama and sentiment -- which audiences have lapped up for more than a century -- this version has a fresh, natural, even contemporary feel. That's  also reflected in most of the music by Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner and lyrics by Matt Berninger and Caron Besser.

There's an elemental quality to the show that I found at times exhilarating, and that includes the stark sets, the staging, and several movement sequences. Even the time period in which the work is set is  bracingly off-center, sometimes traditional yet also modern.  But Roxanne would have been better served if her costume and wig didn't look quite so dully period. Indeed, more of the hip style of set designers Christine Jones and Amy Rubin could have further permeated the production to give it an even sharper edge.

The ensemble -- there are only 10 actors in all -- were solid, including a lovely voiced Damon J. Gillespie as Cyrano's pal Le Bret in their haunting song "Need of Nothing." Top singing honors go to Blake Jenner as Christian who has a glorious reprise of the show's loveliest song, "Someone to Say." Haley Bennett has a a natural approach to the role but her speaking voice is weak and singing chops far from par.

But the second act needs that same great editing eye as the first. .Wisely cut is Roxanne's improbable trip to to the front lines -- but other strategic adjustments are needed as the show moves forward. The musical tone is much darker, more languid and you could feel a weight bearing down on the very long battleground segment.

But most in need of rethinking is the final heartbreaking scene. It's oddly staged, on the ground and out of sightlines for many, with a song that is less than stellar. The scene  presents a disconcerting side of Roxanne that chills the heart of the scene and deprives Cyrano of his panache, and instead givies him a cold substitute of pride, leaving the audience unfulfilled.

But all of this is part of the developmental journey and the potential is great for this show which is well more than halfway to being something very special. Some editing, rethinks and even a bit more panache could mean that Cyrano could finally have its musical day.