“A great nose may be an index of a great soul,” Edmund Rostand wrote in Cyrano de Bergerac. When considering the latest adaptation of this popular tale of love and tragedy, which pointedly lacks a notable physical element of the title character, perhaps the same could be said of the theater as well.
In Rostand’s 1897 play, Cyrano is a man who is envied and pitied – a famed swordsmith and master wit, he is a noble soldier who can triumph in a duel while composing an original poem. He also possesses a noticeably large nose, the humiliating effects of which he masks with clever deflection and self-deprecation. In one of the play’s most well-known scenes, after being crudely taunted, Cyrano promptly recites 100 original and more discerning insults.
But Cyrano is unable to voice his feelings for his cousin Roxanne (Jasmine Cephas Jones), with whom he has fallen deeply in love and who is smitten with the handsome soldier Christian. Christian is taken with Roxanne, but the self-professed dullard finds himself unable to woo the woman. Together, Christian and Cyrano romance Roxanne – Christian with his face and Cyrano with his word – through letters and in a balcony scene almost as well-known as one from Romeo and Juliet.
Such material, one presumes, would make for a richly satisfying musical – unspoken love, the dangers of war, unfulfilled passion and secret identities. But this musical, adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt, with music by by members of the band The National – a score by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner and lyrics by Matt Berninger, and Carin Besser – more resembles the Cliff’s Notes of the play: sparse and dry, lacking any embodiment of the characters’ passions.
This gloomy production does contain one bright light – Peter Dinklage, who stars as the title character. Unlike more traditional stagings, Dinklage does not wear a prosthetic nose, but he does embody the melancholy, soulful Cyrano, determined that Roxanne could never love him and attempting to hide his feelings with rueful, downcast glances.
In adapting Rostand’s script – close to three hours of rhyming couplets – Schmidt trimmed the story considerably, paring it down to its bare essentials. But in doing so, much was lost, including some of the most interesting aspects of both Cyrano and Roxanne. Glimpses of his wit are offered, but his most clever moments are shortened, if not cut completely. All that’s left is unfulfilled love, a singular focus that serves as a detriment to both Roxanne and Christian.
Christian, (Blake Jenner) – who readily admits his lack of wit and longs for the words to tell Roxanne of his feelings – is badly underwritten. Jenner inspires as much sympathy as he can in a character who knowingly romances a woman under false pretenses, and his seemingly sudden decision to admit the truth to Roxanne is admirable. But the book’s tightened focus offers little else, even for a character defined by his lack of depth.
It is Roxanne who truly done a disservice by this adaptation, a frustrating realization in a time of heightened awareness on women in the industry, both on and behind the stage. She is first introduced as a young woman curious about the mysteries of love, but aside from a passing reference to attending a poetry reading, little is known of her intelligence or honor. Her naivete is impossible to ignore when she declares herself to be in love with Christian following a single glance exchanged across a theater – an important moment frustratingly minimized in the musical’s opening moments. Her cleverness is apparent when she manages to foil the plans of the amorous and unscrupulous Count De Guiche (Ritchie Coster), but, following a disappointing encounter with Christian, when Roxanne declares in song that she “wants more,” these desires seem come from girlish desires rather than superior intelligence.
In a surprising omission from the original source material, Roxanne’s surprise visit to the soldiers at the front is no longer a part of the story. In Rostand’s script, Roxanne is so moved by the twice-daily letters she receives from Cyrano, signed Christian, that she travels to see the soldiers, bringing them food by flirting her way through the Spanish lines. This act of courage, which is followed by Roxanne’s telling Christian that she loves him for his soul alone and does not care about his looks, reveals a remarkable aspect of her character, bringing to life her belief in love and establishing justification for her later actions.
Cephas-Jones’ lusciously soulful voice, which served as the undoing of Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is misused; Roxanne’s rebellions are spiritual and intellectual, not sexual. In the musical’s final tragic moments: she is simply unable to communicate Roxanne’s grief.
This stripped-down, simplistic approach is embodied in Christine Jones and Amy Rubin’s deceptively simple set design which shifts from a courtyard to a battlefield, where Jeff and Rick Kuperman’s fluid choreography powerfully depicts the entrapment and horror of battle. If only the words and music evoked the same strength of emotions.