A ragtag band of actors bringing broad-stroked comedy to the streets of 16th century Italy constitutes The Glorious Ones, who pranced into the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater on Nov. 5, parading their fine and fleeting wares before the public for fast feedback: applause.
The applause fades fast, too, providing poignant underpinnings to this saga of performers who strive for immortality in their art. The seven actors in this opus pursue this noble objective using physicality, mime and the traditional Italian improvisational technique of commedia dell'arte to perpetuate the knockabout comedy the Greeks invented.
For composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist–librettist Lynn Ahrens, who have musicalized Francine Prose's 1974 novel, The Glorious Ones qualifies as an earlier Ragtime (the 1998 musical that won the pair the Tony for best score) — a time when comedy was prince and its practitioners were, at least for one brief golden moment, script-free. But their day came and went, and actors with scripted agendas replaced them.
It helps to have a theatrical perspective on all this, admits Ahrens — not that it's really required: "It starts there, but I believe this resonates with anyone who has had a pinnacle in their life, then suddenly sees their powers beginning to decline and wants terribly to be remembered, to leave something behind, to make their mark in some way on this earth." Being a one-time-only, in-the-moment experience, theatre is not the best way to make a lasting impression. It may, in fact, be the worst. The conflict in this show is much deeper than the improv-versus-scripted way of doing things. "The real conflict," Ahrens insists, "is about a man relinquishing his control of the truth he has created to a new generation. I mean, life is ephemeral, but this is about the stage and that moment of Being There for that great performance. It's about how we all deal with changing times in our own lives, growing older, losing our powers and watching young people come up to take our place — how we all react to that. Every-body has to go through that situation in life.
"In this play is everything that we do in the theatre: It's musical, it's insane, it's funny, it's fast-paced, it's a bunch of crazy people in a room. I have always said that this play is like being in a room with Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges."
A properly glorious title tune sets the stage for these 100 intermissionless minutes as Flaminio Scala (Marc Kudisch), a foundling raised by monks, assembles actors to play the archetypes in his company. At a brothel, he recruits the earthy Columbina (Natalie Venetia Belcon), his lusty leading lady whom age eventually relegates to a comic maid.
Isabella (Erin Davie), the ingenue, and Francesco (Jeremy Webb), the witty servant, are the young lovers/marrieds who take over the star spots in time, she developing into a playwright for action previously improvised - another troubling sign of changing times. In support are Armanda (Julyana Soelistyo), a feisty dwarf; Pantalone (David Patrick Kelly), the comic decrepit; and Dottore (John Kassir), the pompous quack doctor.
Director–choreographer Graciela Daniele feverishly mixes up all of the above, giving epic sweep to this oft-overlooked period of theatrical history. (After all, she staged Ragtime's high-steppin', silhouetted cavalcade — and is a commedia dell'arte devotee since she danced Petrouchka as a teenager. It doesn't hurt, either, that her favorite film is "Les Enfants du Paradis," Marcel Carne's classic love-offering to a theatrical traveling troupe.)
"Y'know, it's only a cast of seven, but it feels like a cast of a thousand because Graciela always keeps the stage so populated," points out Flaherty. "Out of all the pieces that we have done, this is actually the smallest cast, but every single one of these extraordinary actors has their moment to get on that stage and shine like a diamond. They've each been given a tour de force moment. Lynn and I are attracted to shows that deal with ensemble casts — beginning with Once on This Island — but this is our most ensemble-based show. The Glorious Ones is about a troupe, an ensemble, named The Glorious Ones."
Under the heading of "research," he treated himself to a trip to Venice. "It was thrilling to see these archetypes were so present there. I was next to the Hotel Columbina, in fact.
"I would say this score, by far, is the most European-sounding I've ever done. Almost every song comes out of the number three — not to say that it's A Little Night Music, where all the songs are based on a waltz, but everything has a circular feel to it.
"There is something about the meter of three that found its way into virtually every piece of music in the score. It has a very round and romantic sound, but at the same time, the show deals with low comedy. That, for me, was the challenge — the really fun part of it — to find a way that these different colors could co-exist within the same story. They're people who are doing low comedy but reaching for the stars. It's about street performers. These characters are sort of gnarly, they're dirty, they're in the streets — but they reach for the stars, trying to create something that's really from nothing, and I find that very moving."
Not for nothing is Scala rewarded with an 11 o'clock number, "I Was Here," which is plainly a paean to live performing. "It also cues into the theme of the show — how theatre, by its very nature, is ephemeral," says Flaherty. "It's one of those things where you had to be there. That's what's moving about the song and about the show: It's about how a live performance only exists in the memory of the audience who was there for that particular night. The Glorious Ones were remembered by people who'd seen them. That is what's exciting about theatre. It's a one-on-one experience, and it exists in mind and memory."