Dorian, the musical version of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray now playing at the Buell, boasts some of the finest voices I've heard in a long time. Unfortunately, everything else about the show is mediocre: It features stock characters, a dumb script, a pedestrian plot, some major staging gaffes and songs that leave your memory before their final notes have died away.
I was taken aback when I first read that writer/composer James Mellon had decided to set Wilde's story in contemporary New Orleans instead of Victorian London, but the more I thought about it, the more reasonable it seemed. The novel is about decadence and corruption; much of its power comes from the undercurrent of unacknowledged sexual feeling between Dorian Gray and Lord Henry, the sophisticate who inducts Dorian into a life of selfish cruelty and hedonism. Perhaps Mellon was right, I decided. Perhaps New Orleans -- that city of magic, voodoo, celebration and steamy nights -- would make a perfect setting.
I should have noticed another of Mellon's quotes, though. In the novel, Dorian Gray strikes his Faustian bargain because he wants to remain eternally young and beautiful. But "If you make your protagonist so shallow, so despicable, that an audience can't get behind him," Mellon said, "the musical will fail."
Temple Buell Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis Streets
Presented by Denver Center Attractions
Through September 29
So Dorian loses his narcissism and becomes a sweet young boy adrift in the big, bad world. He falls in love with a mulatto girl, Celia Vane, but spurns her when he thinks she's been unfaithful to him. She kills herself. It's then, filled with guilt and grief, that he makes his fateful wish: He'd give his soul never to feel such pain again.
The original Dorian Gray's response to the suicide of his Sybil is a brilliant study of a disoriented, rationalizing and utterly selfish mind. He grieves sincerely, begins to romanticize the death, panics momentarily because on some level he understands that she represented his only hope of salvation, and finally concludes: "It seems to me to be simply like a wonderful ending to a wonderful play. It has all the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took a great part, but by which I have not been wounded."
By contrast, Mellon's Dorian weeps, sings and prays.
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At every step, the creators of this production settle for the most sentimental and obvious choices. When Dorian and Celia first meet, she babbles about having finally found her angel, and they run off hand in hand. Her suicide is staged like a trust exercise: She falls forward into the outstretched arms of a group of men. Lord Henry becomes Henry Lord, no longer a brilliant, silken seducer, but a harried artist with a wife who's full of grief because she can't hold his attention, and a pretty, five-year-old daughter. Wilde called homosexuality "the love that dares not speak its name," but by the second act, Dorian and Henry are speaking it quite a lot, and Henry, having lost all his dignity, is whining about the failure of their relationship. "All you wanted to do was put me on a pedestal," rants Dorian.
Significantly, it's not his grace or his angelic face that distinguish this Dorian; it's his much-in-evidence -- and don't think I'm complaining here -- sculpted torso. Take away all of Wilde's ruminations about earthly delights, the place of art in the world, the nature of evil; create a protagonist with no shadows or complexities; sanitize the rest of the characters and the setting, and what are you left with? An Andrew Lloyd Webber musical without the pretty tunes, and an admonition to "always follow your heart."
There's a lot of talent in the cast at Buell. It's almost worth attending the show to hear Nikki Reneè Daniels's singing as Celia. I can't find the words to do her voice justice. It's rich; it gleams like jaguar hide; there's a hint of huskiness to the low notes and a glorious purity to the high ones. There are other fine voices: Armelia McQueen would certainly bring down the house if she had anything decent to sing, and Matt Cavenaugh, as Dorian, has a strong, expressive voice. I did find Cavenaugh's acting hammy at times, but this may have been a result of the direction. I'd really like to see Robert Cuccioli, who plays Henry Lord, in something else. His performing is intelligent and his voice supple. And Kirsten Benton brings vocal and physical charm to the role of his wife, Lally. Seldom has so much talent come together on a Denver stage to so little effect.