Don’t go to Columbia’s Drama Learning Center just now looking for children’s theater. Triumph of Love, the new Red Branch Theatre Co. production playing there through October 18th, is by and for grown-ups, with enough ribaldry and romance to usher out the Age of Reason.
It’s odd to put an audience rating on material that is over 300 years old. But the frequent double-entendres pertaining to male anatomy and female libido would get Triumph of Love a PG-13 in Hollywood.
So leave the kids with a sitter and come enjoy one of the more immodest musicals of recent vintage.
Those of us living near Baltimore remember the show’s premiere at CenterStage back in 1996. It featured a book by Calvert Street dramaturg James Magruder, who based his text on a 1772 piece of Parisian whimsy by the commedia dell’arte farceur Marivaux.
With songs by Jeffrey Stock (music) and Susan Birkenhead (lyrics), Triumph of Love was transplanted to Broadway in 1997, where its run lasted just two months, despite the added star power of Betty Buckley and F. Murray Abraham.
It’s plot is silly, but evidently not silly enough to draw in the Spamalot crowds.
In Columbia, the central role of Leonide, Princess of Sparta, is fetchingly played by short-haired sprite Kirsten Salpini, making her Red Branch debut. She has the most musical voice in the show, which is good news because she also gets the classiest songs, “Anything” and “What Have I Done?”
Leonide, it turns out, is carrying a heavy torch for a young man she spotted in a cloistered, all-male academy for young rationalists. In order to gain access to him, she and her randy maid-servant, Corine (Erin Branigan), decide they need to put boots on the ground.
The two ladies adopt male disguises, which pretty soon are being further altered for fear of discovery. As often happens in such cases, the deception attracts other romance-starved suitors, and the pair becomes wrapped in webs of mistaken gender identity too convoluted to repeat.
Further complicating Leonide’s mission is her young Adonis, Agis, who feels that he was robbed of his rightful title as Prince of Sparta. He is, in fact, preparing to assassinate the unseen Princess Leonide, if he can somehow get to her.
Okay, so none of this pretends to be plausible. It is merely a framework for slapstick byplay, romantic foreplay, and for airing out a rather musty dialectic on the need to re-integrate brain and passion.
Helping us to suspend disbelief for two hours is Danny Bertaux as Agis. Bertaux gets all the fun out of playing the ultimate male ingenue — stalwart, dutiful, honor-bound, and dense as a palace wall. He also has a musical and precise singing voice, which he plies to excellent advantage in his solo, “Issue in Question,” and the big Act Two curtain-closer, “Teach Me Not to Love You.”
If we never quite believe in the ends of Leonide’s long-distance love affair, the troupe of players around her make the journey itself more than half the fun.
Cory Jones and Annette Wasno as the buttoned-up brother-and-sister headmasters at the academy give us reason to believe there might be a little heat left in the Age of Enlightenment. Jones’ Sondheim-esque “The Tree” and Wasno’s heartfelt soliloquy “Serenity” manage to bleed a bit of humanity into their repressed characters.
Best of all are the evening’s baggy pants burlesque clowns: Gavin Shown as the rotund gardener, Dimas, and Peter Boyer as the perky Harlequin. Whether teaming up in a soft-shoe novelty number (“Henchmen Are Forgotten”) or joining Erin Branigan in the delicious “Mr. Right,” these cut-ups manage to steal every mad moment they’re on stage.
Not all of the singing is on pitch at Red Branch, and the offstage piano accompainment by Dustin Merrill at points sounds uncharacteristically restrained. For the most part, though, the music and comedy combine for near non-stop delight.
The minimal topiary courtyard and library settings by Scenic Designers Chester Stacy and Katie Wertz underscore the sense of romantic whimsy. The same could be said for the budget-conscious period costuming by Camille Petrillo. The lighting designs by Lynn Joslin continue to be a strong theatrical plus here.
In recent seasons, Director Stephanie Lynn Williams has been helping to extend her theater’s mission from being a showcase for actors to being a revival house for today’s most worthy musical composers. With Triumph of Love, she adds yet another ambitious feather to the cap of Howard County’s most neighborly playhouse.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.