Author: Kara Mcvey
The Pasadena Playhouse, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last May, has emerged from its financial woes and is tenuously planning a new season of plays and musicals. The theater, originally designed by architect Elmer Grey in the 1920s, is a remarkable example of old-fashioned Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. The main stage is framed by an elaborately sculpted archway and lies above a full orchestra pit which provides musical accompaniment. The playhouse’s staff and supporters are doing everything possible to ensure that the new musical “Dangerous Beauty,” the landmark theater’s first production since recovering, achieves success.
The musical focuses on the life of famed Renaissance-era Venetian courtesan and poet Veronica Franco. Historian Margaret Rosenthal studied Franco for the 1992 biography “The Honest Courtesan,” which later inspired the 1998 film “Dangerous Beauty,” starring Catherine McCormack and Rufus Sewell. Jeannine Dominy adapted her screenplay from the film into the play with the collaborative effort of lyricist Amanda McBroom and music composer Michele Brourman. The show has been in previews for the past few weeks and has its official world premiere on Feb. 13.
The musical begins with the budding romance between the free-spirited Veronica Franco (Jenny Powers, Broadway’s “Grease”) and charming Marco Venier (James Snyder, Broadway’s “Crybaby”). Their tryst is halted, however, when Marco leaves her for an arranged marriage. Veronica, who has no fortune and now no prospects, decides that rather than fruitlessly pursuing gentlemen who only marry well-endowed women, she will make her own way in the world. She begins training to become a courtesan.
As a courtesan, Veronica is able to provide for herself and her mother, remain free from the stifling bonds of a 16th-century marriage and receive a comprehensive education. Veronica soon becomes one of the most famous women in Venice.
The majority of the play focuses on Veronica’s successes and trials as a courtesan and scholar. Her academic studies and poetic work fuel her passion but also create conflict between her and various characters and authority figures who are highly suspicious of powerful, educated women. When plague destroys much of Venice, Catholic church authorities flood in to try to cleanse the city of evil. Veronica, as a scholar and courtesan, is targeted and charged with witchcraft.
“Dangerous Beauty” follows Veronica’s difficult journey to be a free woman, to pursue an education and to provide for her family. Led by the outstanding performance of Powers as Veronica, the cast compellingly illustrates the struggle for respect in a male-centric culture and the tension between figures of authority and those subverting the status quo. In Veronica’s character, we see a brave and brilliant woman trying to fight for recognition in a society that condemns her simply for her intelligence. Her story and her victory are inspiring, and the musical succeeds in making us cheer for her.
The show is not flawless. As a preview, the show had a few minor mishaps and slip-ups, which will likely be polished out before the premiere. Much of the book for the musical was taken from the screenplay. Therefore, the play retained many of the film’s best lines but sometimes did not adequately account for changes between screen and stage. For example, at one point in the film, a character decides to join the church while observing a Catholic priest. The musical, however, breezes over the character’s decision, which makes the transition easy to overlook. The script, though mostly insightful and well-constructed, sometimes leads to confusion.
The show’s assets make up for its flaws 10 times over. The choreography and music are, if not great, then at least very good as the show delivers a few spectacular musical sequences. Also exceptional are the show’s visually stunning set, extravagant costumes and creative lighting design. Between the show’s powerful message, strong performances and quality of production, “Dangerous Beauty” is a must-see. Ultimately, the show is a fascinating and beautiful glimpse into the life of an independent woman living before her time, and it succeeds in its endeavor to capture the audience’s hearts.
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