Julyana Soelistyo, John Kassir, Jeremy Webb, Marc Kudisch,
and David Patrick Kelly in The Glorious Ones
(© Joan Marcus)
Julyana Soelistyo, John Kassir, Jeremy Webb, Marc Kudisch,
and David Patrick Kelly in The Glorious Ones
(© Joan Marcus)
In their now three-decade-long collaboration, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens have transported us to the Caribbean (Once on this Island), Monaco (Lucky Stiff), Ireland (A Man of No Importance), and even New Rochelle (Ragtime). For their long-aborning musical, The Glorious Ones, now getting its New York premiere at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater, the destination is 16th-century Venice, Italy, and the beginnings of the theatrical art form known as commedia dell'arte.

While this gentle and loving valentine to actors doesn't rank among the pair's more substantial achievements, it's nonetheless a generally pleasing and occasionally effervescent diversion. Much of the credit for the success of the show -- which is based on a historical novel by Francine Prose -- belongs to director/choreographer Graciela Daniele's nicely fluid production, aided by Dan Ostling's simple set and Mara Blumenfeld's spot-on costumes.

But giving credit where it's most due, The Glorious Ones belongs to star Marc Kudisch, who proves to be an ideal fit for the role of Flaminio Scalo, the decidedly conceited if passionate visionary who helped bring this special brand of street theater to the masses and beyond. Kudisch, looking unusually trim and in fine voice, brings just enough heart to his portrayal of Scalo to stop him from being insufferable. You even understand why his on-stage and off-stage leading lady Columbina, a former courtesan (given a fiery, soulful, if slightly too contemporary take by the wonderful Natalie Venetia Belcon) sticks with him through thick and thin.

Ahrens has crafted her own libretto, and it's a tad clunky at times. Flaminio first introduces us to the members of his troupe, Pantalone (a touching David Patrick Kelly), a former tailor, Dottore (a funny John Kassir), a former elixir salesman, and the dwarfish Armanda Ragusa (the excellent Julyana Soelistyo). Then, we soon see some of their silly, slapsticky skits in action. Conflict later arrives when Flaminio brings in the young clown Francesco (a mildly effective Jeremy Webb), who soon wants to usurp Flaminio's leadership, especially after his marriage to the noblewoman Isabella (a surprisingly bland Erin Davie), who becomes a troupe member and writer.

The show is primarily sung, but little of the score really registers until "Armanda's Tarantella," a chuckle-filled list of double entendres, which arrives halfway through the 100 intermissionless minutes. Belcon's big number, "My Body Wasn't Why," in which Columbina realistically faces the fact of aging, makes a definite impact, and Kudisch finally gets to go full-throttle in "I Was Here," an anthem-like almost-finale in which he explains the artist's desire to leave something worthwhile behind.

Sadly, the show's best number, the gorgeous ballad "Opposite You" -- I can vouch for its beauty having heard Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley sing it numerous times and on CD -- is given a somewhat cursory and ill-sung rendition by Webb and Davie. Webb fares slightly better on his first ballad, "Absalom," but a stronger vocalist would probably have given it more oomph.

The show ends with a rather bald-faced epilogue in which Ahrens and Flaherty spell out the legacy of commedia dell'arte, for which we should all indeed be grateful. Indeed, The Glorious Ones is a fitting tribute to the art form's founders, even if the musical too-rarely lives up to its name.