Roman Holiday at Guthrie doesn't add up

Forget the acting, just keep singing: Edward Watts, Stephanie Rothenberg
Michael Brosilow

What do you get when you merge a classic romantic comedy with music from one of the great songsmiths of the 20th century? In the case of Roman Holiday, the new adaptation of the 1950s Gregory Peck/Audrey Hepburn film now playing at the Guthrie, you get a mess, because the two parts of the show fight for attention.

It turns out that the songs written by Cole Porter win out over the story of a one-day "affair" between a princess and a reporter-songwriter. That's partially due to the cast, which gives full voice to an evening of classic material. It's also due to the story, which mainly gets in the way of the music.

A lot of the production's issues stem, too, from the conception. While the songs generally fit in with the themes and the story, they don't emerge naturally from the characters' emotions. Instead, there's a lot of "Oh, what a beautiful day" leading into, say, "A Picture of Me Without You." Getting the songs in means that there's a lot of repetition of story points. The aforementioned piece comes at the opening of Act Two, after several previous scenes of the characters wandering around Rome.

In the movie and the play, we follow Anne, a young princess from an unnamed European country, who escapes the dull bonds of her palatial life to see how the everyday citizens of Rome live. Worn out, and having been given a sedative just before her escape, Anne falls asleep at a café and is rescued by Joe.

The tweaks that Paul Blake added to the story are a mixed bag. Creating a saucy Roman singer, Francesca, adds some spice and gives Christina Baldwin a chance to showcase her excellent singing and acting. On the other hand, making Anne's sort-of love interest Joe also a songwriter with a chance to write a Broadway musical? Not that great an idea.

The next day, Joe recognizes Anne for who she is and plans to make a killing on the story he could write. So he takes her out on the town, seeing the sights and, of course, falling in love with her.

Joe ends up being quite a bit of a problem here. While the other main actors do a solid job in their roles, Edward Watts is as stiff as a board throughout the show. He possesses a magnificent voice, but far too often he stands stock still in the middle of the stage like a first-grader giving a speech before an all-school assembly. I don't know if that comes from the actor or the director, John Miller-Stephany, but it seriously undercut any chemistry between the two leads. After all, it's hard to feel a connection, let alone budding passion, when the romantic number is sung with the two performers unmoving, several feet apart.

That stiffness extends to the character himself. I just had a hard time buying the budding romance here. It doesn't help that Joe is acting like a cad through most of this. He is using his chance encounter with the princess to make some bucks so he can escape Rome and go back to New York.

Stephanie Rothenberg does good work as Anne, making a bright and engaging character out of the princess. Michelle Barber is fine in her limited time onstage as the Countess, Anne's guardian and confidant, while Jim Stanek makes a far more engaging character than Watts as Irving, Joe's lovelorn photographer.

The whole evening looks and sounds sumptuous, with Todd Rosenthal's sets deserving a bow of their own, as they largely bring Rome to life. The songs, from the opening "Once Upon a Time" through "Night and Day," match the elegance of the look and the voices. (Though considering the money put into the show, you'd think they could have hired some actual string players instead of using horrible-sounding synthesized ones.)

Basically, a recital of Cole Porter's music would have been a far more engaging evening than this muddy mess. The two parts have such an uneasy partnership that the romantic tale gets lost, making the story tedious as we wait, impatiently, for the next song to start.

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