Monday, July 25, 2016

ICON: Does It Want To Be An Old Style Operetta or An Edgy Socio-Political Musical?

ICON:  Photo by Shira Friedman Photography

There is nothing wrong with Icon – an old school romantic musical being given a relatively upscale production as part of the annual New York Musical Festival (NYMF)  that could not be fixed with some serious trimming and a commitment to a style that could go in one of two directions: un-ironic operetta or a satiric Cabaret-like take on the rise of fascism in Italy. If my vote counts, I'd opt for the latter.

Prior to this brief run, Icon, with a book by Sebastian Michael and music and lyrics by Jonathan Kaldor, had not seen the light of day since 2008, when it was produced at a London fringe theater, along with a couple of staged readings elsewhere in that city.

The plot is one that has been incorporated into many a hoary operetta and movie: An American socialite is married off to the scion of a titled European family; the arranged marriage does not work out; the socialite falls in love with a commoner.  

That’s OK. There are worse threadbare plot lines on which to set a romantic musical.  It’s what you do with the material that matters.

In this case, the socialite, the newly-anointed Princess Constance (played with great American feistiness and optimism by Charlotte Maltby), is determined to make a go of things, even when her new husband, Crown Prince Cedric (Ben McHugh), evidently gay, shows no interest in her whatsoever. He and his mother the Grand Duchess (Leslie Becker), a true pragmatist who understands what's what, are mostly concerned with appearances. Constance – a combination of Princess Di and Princess Grace, with a little bit of Evita thrown in – fills the bill nicely, so long as she is willing to tow the line, smile, and wave as required.  

Constance is determined to make the most of her position, however, and it isn’t long before she bypasses the snooty protocols and condescension with which she is treated, to become “the people’s princess.” Along the way, she meets and falls in love with Alvaro (Sam Simahk), a waiter/musician, and naively believes that as an egalitarian American she can do what she likes without the least concern for appearances. Will love triumph, or will Constance be subsumed by the rules of society that threaten to engulf her?  

The action takes place mostly in 1928 in a principality nestled in the Italian Alps. But there is also an ill-fitting framing device set in Venezuela (???) in 1969, with the purpose of providing needless exposition. Fortunately for us, in this production we are blessed in these scenes with the presence of Donna McKechnie as a character whose connection with the main story you’ll figure out within ten seconds. She does what she can with the role (alas, no dancing, and only a teensy bit of singing), but, really, here is one of the places where the show needs judicious pruning and reworking. Better to excise the Venezuela scenes and build any necessary exposition into the main story line.

The other place that needs reconsideration is the tone of the show, which cries out for building up the context of fascism (Mussolini was already running things by the year Icon takes place). No doubt in doing so, it would invite comparison with Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. But the music already is a mix of  lyrical romanticism and the kind of work associated with the more famous pair (including one specific song that sounds quite a bit like a number from Cabaret), as well as that of Kurt Weill or Marc (The Cradle Will Rock) Blitzstein. So I say, go with it and see where it might lead.   

Icon has been given more than a fair shake by the talented Equity cast (including the charmingly elegant Tony Sheldon as Princess Constance’s secretary/protector), under the direction of Paul Stancato, who also contributes the choreography. Liene Dobraja’s costumes, Kevan Loney’s projection design, and the seven-member orchestra conducted by Jesse Warkentin help to raise the caliber of the production beyond that of the typically stripped-down versions that appear in the festival.  But if Icon is to have a life beyond the handful of performances at NYMF, it does need to revisit its book and reconsider its focus.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

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