Madonna or whore? Wife or slut?
Three big musicals opened during the past week. Coincidentally, all three productions depict young women who must cope with the conflict between the aforementioned stereotypes, which have afflicted women for centuries.
In fact, if you see the productions in this order — Dangerous Beauty, Gigi, Rock of Ages — you’ll get a very sketchy but entertaining chronological survey of popular attitudes on these stereotypes. At the same time, I can’t recommend any of them unreservedly.
Dangerous Beauty, the new Renaissance-rock musical at the Pasadena Playhouse, focuses on the 16th-century courtesan Veronica Franco (Jenny Powers). Although she’s restricted by the hypocrisies of Venetian society, which prevent her from marrying her lover-man Marco (James Snyder), this swashbuckling heroine is such an altogether superior person that she not only gets her man anyway (I guess — the ending is a little unclear), but she also saves Venice from a military disaster and upends the Inquisition.
She’s a Renaissance Wonder Woman. In her spare time, she fences and composes extemporaneous poetry in public — using both talents to humiliate her male rival in the duels and extemporaneous poetry competitions that apparently filled the streets of 16th-century Venice. Of course, this being a musical, she also is endowed with the stellar pipes as well as the magnetic looks of Powers.
The show’s all-female creative team (book and verse by Jeannine Dominy, lyrics by Amanda McBroom, music by Michele Brourman, direction by Sheryl Kaller) certainly gets its ideological points across and occasionally manages to convey a sense of romance, regret or adventure. Powers gets a stirring 11 o’clock number, and a women’s trio earlier in the second act probes deeper than most of the other numbers into the characters’ conflicts.
More often, however, the production has a superficial gloss that reflects largely clichéd sentiments or lines that simply don’t land as sharply as they should. For example, this rhyming exchange between Veronica and her male rival Maffeo, in which he speaks highly of Venice’s freedom:
“And even upstarts are allowed to whine/
In freedom’s greatest earthly shrine.”
Veronica responds that Venetian women aren’t as free as men:
“Such liberty is man’s, not maid’s, not mine.”
Maffeo replies: “And so we turn our hands…”
Then they jointly say: “…to rhyme.”
In other words, a celebration of rhyme concludes with the awkward rhyming of “mine” and “rhyme.”
I couldn’t help but recall that exchange as I listened to the devilishly intricate and witty lyrics that Alan Jay Lerner provided for Gigi. David Lee’s production for Reprise, at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, uses the script for a 1985 British revival instead of the 1973 version, which didn’t last long on Broadway. Lerner’s lyrics sparkle in high contrast to McBroom’s for Dangerous Beauty.
Of course Gigi is intended as a comedy, unlike Dangerous Beauty, which seems to be intended as a secular canonization of Veronica Franco. For most of Lee’s staging, the comedy in Gigi works like gangbusters, in the hands of a gifted cast that include coltish Lisa O’Hare in the title role and the dashing Matt Cavenaugh (who happens to be married to Powers of Dangerous Beauty) as Gigi’s somewhat older, fraternal friend Gaston.
The gap between the ages of Gigi and Gaston is left unclear in the script, perhaps so as to avoid being explicit about whether Gigi is under 18. And here is where the original all-male creative team (Lerner wrote the book and lyrics, Frederick Loewe the music) might have benefited from a woman’s perspective.
Gaston is a notorious playboy whose only real escape — and whose only authentic joy in life — is his role as an unofficial big-brother figure to Gigi, who responds in kind as a little-sister figure (although they’re not actually related). Because she comes from a long line of courtesans, she’s expected to go into the family business, and eventually Gaston — realizing how much Gigi has grown — tries to turn his surrogate sister into his courtesan. Understandably, she resists. Less understandable, at least from a 2010 perspective, is the final turn of events. As soon as Gaston proposes marriage instead of friendship-with-benefits, apparently Gigi and we are supposed to believe that everything is hunky-dory.
That Gigi might want to develop her own personality and perhaps get to know a few boys her own age, instead of settling down with Gaston in whatever arrangement, isn’t even considered. Earlier in the show, Gigi gets a few strong solos that explore her feelings, but this sudden shift at the end feels entirely unexplained. The ending makes one wish that some of the women who concocted Dangerous Beauty might have been in a position to work with the men who created Gigi.
And finally, let’s look at Rock of Ages, which is set on the Sunset Strip in the ’80s. The young Sherrie (Rebecca Faulkenberry) flees the heartland for Hollywood glamour. Although she likes the janitor and would-be rocker Drew (Constantine Maroulis) at the club where she gets a job, she almost immediately tumbles into men’s room sex with the metal star Stacee Jaxx (MiG Ayesa), who promptly arranges for her to be fired. After Sherrie dabbles in work as a stripper, she and Drew finally get back together and move to Glendale to raise their child. The ending is almost as conventional as that of Gigi, but it doesn’t feel slightly icky, like that of Gigi, because these two have not spent most of their lives as sibling surrogates.
The theme of women’s position in society doesn’t reverberate in this show very much, because Rock of Ages is mainly about the guys and the ’80s rock they all love so much. It also has a subplot about West Hollywood urban planning, of all things. The club and the rest of the Strip are threatened by a German developer with a compliant, seemingly gay son (the show’s creators appear to assume that Germans and gays are always good for laughs from its target audience). Can the forces of West Hollywood rise up to thwart those who don’t appreciate the Sunset Strip’s rock heritage?
(By the way, in his LA Times review, Chris Willman said he was “bothered” because “in this fantasy world, the Strip is in the city of Los Angeles instead of West Hollywood.” Although there may have been a few references to LA as in “greater LA,” I don’t recall any that specifically cited the corrupt city officials as being those of either LA or West Hollywood, and I do recall that at the end, we’re told that the leader of the anti-development protests later became the mayor of West Hollywood).
The show is much better than it was in its pre-Broadway roots in smaller Hollywood venues five years ago. It has a more aggressively ironic narration, which effectively makes it look like an intentionally funny comic strip, instead of the more serious comic strip that Dangerous Beauty sometimes resembles. On the downside, Rock of Ages requires theatergoers who aren’t accustomed to rock concerts to adjust their listening techniques accordingly, perhaps with the aid of earplugs or with fingers kept in position as close to the ears as possible for use as homemade earplugs when needed.
It’s ultimately the most superficial show of the three. Too bad that in recent Broadway musical history, LA as a subject has been represented mainly by Rock of Ages and the equally slight Xanadu — two takeoffs on different wings of the ’80s music scene. By contrast, Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard actually looks deep.
Dangerous Beauty, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tues-Fri, 8 pm; Sat 2 and 8 pm; Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes March 6. 626-356-7529. www.PasadenaPlayhosue.org.
Gigi, Reprise at Freud Playhouse, near northeast corner of UCLA campus, near Sunset and Hilgard, Westwood. Tues-Fri, 8 pm; Sat 2 and 8 pm; Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes Feb. 27. 310-825-2101. www.reprise.org.
Rock of Ages, Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tues-Fri 8 pm; Sat 2 and 8 pm; Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Closes Feb. 27. Â 800-982-2787. www.BroadwayLA.org.