All off? All off: “Roman Holiday” at the Guthrie

The musical version of the 1953 romantic comedy “Roman Holiday” is making its American premiere at the Guthrie Theater.

Sarah Harper

 

 

What: “Roman Holiday”

When: Now through August 19

Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St.

Cost: $35-80

Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes including intermission

 

When “Roman Holiday” came out in 1953, it was advertised as the ultimate escape. “Take a vacation,” the trailers encouraged. Join Audrey Hepburn, in her film debut, and the alarmingly handsome Gregory Peck for a carefree romp in the Eternal City. Hepburn’s Princess Anne ran away and spent a whole day eating gelato and seeing the sites and dancing with the man who cut her hair – you can do that too, if only vicariously, at the movies and in 118 minutes.

Paul Blake wrote the musical version of “Roman Holiday” in 2001, borrowing songs from the catalogue of Cole Porter – but ditching a lot of what made the movie so compelling. Even with a healthy dose of the lyrical prodigy’s standards like “Easy to Love,” and “Just One Of Those Things,” Blake’s take on “Roman Holiday,” now being performed at the Guthrie Theater, falls flat.

While the film had something of a rough edge, the musical shines so brightly that it hurts. In between the sing-song songs and the big smiles, it’s hard to believe in Princess Anne’s antagonizing sense of ennui or Joe Bradley’s confusion over her presence. The musical kept up with a bittersweet ending, but it fell short in the verisimilitude department — the scenery was pristine to the point of glittering and the actors were boisterous to the point of disingenuous.

So if you go into the musical version of “Roman Holiday” expecting it to be a 3-D version of the film, you’ll be disappointed. You’ll be surprised that Joe Bradley, in addition to being a newspaperman, is also a songwriter. You’ll be surprised by a few entirely new characters.

You’ll be surprised that you’re even surprised. After all, movies have been turning into musicals at a rapid pace lately, and the musicals don’t have to stick to the book at all. In fact, it might have been weird (not to mention impossible) if “Roman Holiday” had been a carbon copy of the movie.

When we regard it by itself, then, as a musical, it still didn’t sparkle the way it wanted to. There are a few too many tacky elements – the projections being the most unbearable. A pixilated flag waves as Princess Anne visits country after country to improve trade relations. And in a charade reminiscent of a computer screensaver, photos from the lovebirds’ motor trip around the city become big snapshots that fade over projections. Projections are necessary for this production, sure, but they could have been handled with more artfulness.

Another disappointing element is the music, with the exception of the Cole Porter jams. It’s a refreshing treat to hear songs like “You Do Something To Me,” but the songs that were written for the musical itself are a disappointment. For a musical so chintzy, you’d expect songs more catchy — but that’s certainly not the case.

But credit ought to be given where credit is due. The choreography is captivating, especially during the big group numbers. At one point during act one, Princess Anne, played by Hepburn dead ringer Stephanie Rothenberg, and Joe Bradley, played by Edward Watts, marvel at each other and how much is going on in the city during the number, “Look What I Found.”  Each dance move conveys character in the ensemble and furthers what feels like a million tiny stories, all of which subtly parallel each other.

Of course, everyone sounds great, from the ensemble members to the pit orchestra, conducted by Andrew Cooke – but isn’t that something of a given at the Guthrie, a big and moneyed theater? What it’s missing is the grit of the film – that’s what provides the traction for such a fun-filled romp. The musical at the Guthrie? Nothing but a holiday.