The history of theater is strewn with Cyranos.
First written in rhyming couplets in 1897 by Edmond Rostand, the tragic story of the large-nosed romantic has had countless adaptations, translations, and re-imaginings—many of them quite good.
Walter Hampden starred in the first Broadway production of Brian Hooker’s 1923 translation. José Ferrer won a Tony Award for his turn in the leading role in 1946. Christopher Plummer won a Tony Award for his performance in a 1973 musical adaptation. Another musical adaptation in 1993 was nominated for several Tonys. Kevin Kline starred as Cyrano in a 2007 Broadway production. The list goes on.
It’s 2019, and the Cyranos keep coming. This summer saw the premier of a new adaptation by Jason O’Connell and Brenda Withers at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. This fall, there came the film, “Cyrano, My Love,” which explores the drama behind the making of the original 1897 production. And now we have Cyrano, a New Group musical adaptation.
The question top of mind for any theatergoer mulling another trip down Cyrano lane is: Why? What terrain in this classic tale still needs exploring?
On paper, the New Group production has plenty going for it. There’s the music, courtesy of the Brooklyn-based indie-rock favorite, The National. And then there’s the cast: specifically, Jasmine Cephas Jones, of Hamilton, and Peter Dinklage, of Game of Thrones (who is married to the show’s writer and director, Erica Schmidt).
Put it all together, however, and the result is surprisingly old hat, despite the updates. The songs, while more contemporary-sounding than you might expect from a show set in the 17th century, are pretty standard, unmemorable fare. Schmidt’s script, meanwhile, is leaner and perhaps more efficient than Rostand’s, but it lacks much of the original’s poetry. The result, altogether, is missing—as earlier incarnations of Cyrano might say—a certain panache.
There are some exceptions. Jeff and Rick Kuperman bring some much-needed lushness to the show with their elegant choreography. In one act, set in a pastry shop, the eye is drawn to the bakers in the background—letting flour descend from their hands in slow motion, and tipping the table toward the audience to reveal the intricate dance of dough and rolling pins occurring atop it. And the music, while largely disappointing song-wise, is much better when it comes to underscoring. Like the best underscoring, you hardly notice Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s instrumentation is there, but the show would undoubtedly be poorer without it.
It would also, surely, be poorer without Dinklage. In the lead role, Dinklage accentuates Cyrano’s snide, sarcastic side; think Gregory House, M.D., but with a sword. You won’t find any prosthetic noses here, by the way. Dinklage, who has a form of dwarfism, brings a unique physicality that works well for the part.
His vocal range is, truth be told, limited, but Dinklage’s voice— rich and deep, somewhere between Leonard Cohen and The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt—has its charms. It presents, moreover, a perfect contrast to Cyrano’s romantic rival, Christian (Blake Jenner), whose voice is Disney sweet. Cephas Jones is given the most opportunities to shine, however, and she rises to the occasion.
But to what end? Cyrano, ultimately, suffers from a lack of raison d’être. Why a new Cyrano, and why now? Schmidt and her collaborators have offered a respectable rendition of a classic tale. But it doesn’t add in any meaningful way to its long lineage.