Review: “Roman Holiday: A New Musical” at the Golden Gate Theatre

San Franciscans once again have the chance to go see a major musical during its pre-Broadway tryout, getting to see a rough draft of a show that will assumably make the transfer to Broadway in the fall or next spring if all goes well. The last production to try out in San Francisco was Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which was a true smash hit when it made it to Broadway back in 2014, still raking in the cash today, three years later. The same producers as Beautiful have brought in Roman Holiday, a musical based on the 1953 romantic comedy film that launched Audrey Hepburn’s career and is today considered to be one of the most iconic films of the classic Hollywood era that uses Cole Porter standards to comprise its musical score.

The story has become so famous that you doubtless know it even if you have no experience with the film. Princess Anne of an unspecified english-speaking country has become tired of the pomp and circumstance that comes with being a member of the royal family, so, while in Rome for a tour of friendly relations, she ducks out one night and spends a day galavanting around the city with one Joe Bradley, a kind and handsome stranger who actually is a newspaper reporter taking secret photographs of Anne with the help of his friend Irving for a headline story, but it seems that Joe and Anne might have difficulty staying just friends.

William Wyler’s film is a solidly plotted and decently entertaining movie, though its wattage is on the low side for a romantic comedy and it never quite gains the momentum of the best rom-coms of the decade like Some Like it Hot or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. My own tepid response to the film might have something to do with my failure to grasp the charms of Audrey Hepburn, who was never able to conjure up anything remotely like chemistry with any of her co-stars. Nevertheless, its fundamental thinness (there are really only three important characters in the film) and reliance on Italian scenery as a backdrop makes it an unusual choice for musical-ization, and while the creators of Roman Holiday: A New Musical have done a competent job at transferring material from one medium to another, they never quite unlock why this story specifically deserves to sing, and thus it fails to do much more than just conjure up the idea of the movie.

There are two major problems that I could spot at the preview performance I attended. Firstly, the Golden Gate Theatre is a true barn, with 2,300 seats and a giant proscenium arch that forces the show to become an elaborate production, complete with dancing chorus and huge set pieces. Given that there are no drastic fundamental changes from the movie in adaptation, the material is still very slight, and feels totally lost amidst all the expensive scenery and costumes. Love stories require an immediacy and intimacy that simply cannot be conjured up when even the highest paying audience members are so far away that they have to squint to see the facial expressions of the actors.

The problem of scale could be fixed when the show transfers to Broadway, provided it transfers to one of the smaller musical houses, but the second problem with the show is much more fundamental, and that is the usage of interpolated Cole Porter songs in lieu of an original score. It is true that Porter was one of the greatest songwriters of all time, far better than any composer nowadays at writing self-contained musical numbers, but the usage of these songs causes the musical numbers to develop a sort-of anonymity. Songs like “Night and Day” or “Take Me Back to Manhattan” are great when sung in a concert setting or on record, but they add no flavor nor depth to the proceedings in Roman Holiday because they weren’t written about the characters in Roman Holiday, they were written for other shows, to be sung by other characters (“Night and Day” is from Gay Divorce; “Take Me Back to Manhattan” is from The New Yorkers). When the songs add no depth and tell us no new information, we have no particular reason to pay attention to the musical numbers. Not to mention that when you do pay attention to the lyrics of the songs, they frequently make no sense in relation to what is happening onstage. Unless the producers want to start drastically revamping their show, this is a hindrance that will forever doom Roman Holiday‘s commercial prospects.

It doesn’t help much that the show’s book, by Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman, and Paul Blake (who are most well-known for working on the first four seasons of The Golden Girls) is bogged-down by too many second-rate punchlines and adds in subplots at the expense of the main storyline. Roman Holiday runs for about 115 minutes not including intermission, which is shorter than the film it is based on. The amount of time that the citizens of Rome spend singing, along with the added subplot of Irving’s adventures with Francesca, his extremely stereotypical fiery Italian fiancée mean that the amount of time spent in the presence of Anne and Joe is cut almost in half. We aren’t given any time to see the romance grow when the show keeps cutting back to its own far less interesting comic side plot, and the weight of the central romance is severely lessened because of that.

The cast mostly is very talented, but suffers from a feeling of anonymity. Stephanie Styles, Drew Gehling, and Jarrod Spector all feel like the touring cast of a show that has already made it to Broadway, each one pretty and polished yet totally unmemorable. This is especially problematic for the role of Anne, as the character lives and dies by its ability to charm the audience. Here, Ms. Styles totally gets lost in the crowd. Her performance is completely indistinguishable, and the show is damaged severely for it. Sara Chase as Francesca suffers from the fact that her character is totally unnecessary, but she has such a strong singing voice that she manages to make an impression even when the material fails her.

It is whenever Georgia Engel steps out onstage that one instantly realizes what the show had been missing. She plays Anne’s aunt, the Countess, which is a totally made up role for the musical and is given a couple of flat punchlines about her old age, but Engel herself (known best for her role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show) adds such a feeling of genuine star quality and personality, her unmistakable honeysuckle voice providing such a rush of warmth, that one wishes that the show could just be entirely based around her, even with a character as unnecessary as hers.

Director Marc Bruni’s staging deserves credit for allowing the confined space of a proscenium stage to feel like an adventure through Rome, while Alex Sanchez’s choreography has no style and no personality, but is lively enough to fill the stage during the musical numbers. Todd Rosenthal’s huge sets look like they cost a lot of money, but they carry with them a sort of oppressive heaviness, best exemplified by the fact that the show’s false proscenium looks like it’s made of concrete. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are the best element, design wise, made with exceeding taste and beauteous to behold.

Roman Holiday makes for a decently amusing distraction, despite all of its flaws. Nobody will ever be offended by what it has to offer. But I doubt that anybody would feel that it was truly worth it to spend as much money as theatre tickets cost nowadays on such a forgettable little musical. The writers and producers of this show need to have a serious look at the material that they are planning on transferring to New York; without major revisions, I’d be surprised if it lasted even a month. Georgia Engel deserves better.

Roman Holiday plays at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco through June 18th. Tickets and information available here.

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