Missing the Point

I'm a huge fan of the Heritage Square Music Hall. Going there to review feels like a break from school and from all those plays -- whether deep and thoughtful or annoyingly pretentious -- to which I have to give serious critical consideration. Heritage provides solace for mind and spirit, gut-bustingly funny theater, a large, filling meal, a troupe of smart, anarchic performers. What more could one ask from an evening out? I always drag friends visiting from other countries up to Golden for a taste of pure, unpretentious Americana. So it hurts me to say that the current production, Cyrano, really doesn't work, although the musical revue that makes up the second half of the program is sufficiently skilled and toe-tapping to ransom the evening.

The trouble with Cyrano is that the company -- actor and author T.J. Mullin, Rory Pierce, Annie Dwyer, Johnette Toye, Alex Crawford and Jon Olson -- has decided to play it straight, or pretty straight. They abandon the hybrid style that's all their own, a style that involves wild improvisation and lots of audience participation. I had been imagining all the over-the-top things they might do with Cyrano -- hell, his nose could have become a character in its own right -- but Mullin plays the wit and fighter who's secretly in love with the beautiful Roxanne (Annie Dwyer) pretty seriously.

Cyrano is afraid to reveal his love because he thinks Roxanne will spurn him. When he learns that brave young Christian loves Roxanne, too, he offers to help. This way he can at least speak what's in his heart to his beloved. Cyrano's words, Christian's looks: How could Roxanne resist?

Although I've always known these actors as comics, I don't doubt their ability to play serious roles. But this isn't the setting for that, and these aren't the roles for them. Mullin specializes in an understated on-stage humor that's the antithesis of Cyrano's swashbuckling. And Annie Dwyer, well, she can do that demure-heroine thing all right, but she's far more interesting when she's flashing baleful glances at the man in the audience who's been brash enough to question her beauty. For a straight Cyrano, with gorgeous costumes and sets and a powerful Bill Christ in the title role, you can't beat the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of two and a half years ago. At Heritage, the costumes aren't romantic: The boots give the men's legs a funny shape; the hats flap. And we don't quite know how to take the moments of slapstick that do occasionally pop up. Cyrano's death, for example, is almost moving -- for a few seconds. And then he recovers his "panache"; the actors burst into song, and we're left off balance.

For the revue, the cast tackles the songs of Stephen Sondheim, who's notoriously difficult to play and sing, and does well with them. N. Randall Johnson proves precise, energetic piano accompaniment, and Dwyer's choreography is basic, but pleasing and smartly executed. I wasn't quite sure if the cast would pull off the first song, "Invocation and Instructions to an Audience," which is a litany of things audience members shouldn't do: cough, loudly ask "What?" if they miss a line, go naked. This is a clever, sophisticated song, and absolutely not the uncomplicated laugh-out-loud stuff you expect at Heritage. Every now and then I thought I saw a question in one of the actor's eyes: Should this be broader? Are they getting the humor? I was still worrying a little as Mullin, Johnette Toye and Annie Dwyer sang "Getting Married Today." Toye, as the minister, sings sublimely of married bliss, Mullin declares his love, and Dwyer expresses her panic-stricken decision not to marry at all. It's tricky singing, but the trio pulled it off. And then the company found its feet and gave us a medley of songs from such musicals as Company, Gypsy and West Side Story (Sondheim was the lyricist for the latter two) that was so charming and tuneful that you wanted the music never to stop. In my time, I've heard a lot of actresses singing "Ladies Who Lunch" -- a showstopper in any setting -- but there was something in the growling anarchy of Dwyer's version that made it dangerously new.

I imagine it gets boring for talented folks like the Heritage Square actors to repeat the same crowd-pleasing formula show after show, year after year, and I can see why they'd want to tackle more serious theater themes and more challenging music. With the songs, they managed to triumph. But the semi-straight, semi-comic Cyrano left me hungry for the usual goings-on. For heaven's sake, people, unleash Annie Dwyer.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

Latest Stories