When a beloved, timeless classic like “Cyrano de Bergerac” is revived onstage, it begs the question: What fresh twist justifies recounting this story for the umpteenth time?
In this latest “Cyrano,” presented by The New Group and originally commissioned by Goodspeed Musicals, dramatist Erica Schmidt has concocted multiple twists for Edmond Rostand’s 1897 tragicomic drama about a hopelessly lopsided love triangle. Not only has she reworked the text from the original, but she directs as well. Schmidt takes bold, creative risks to challenge the familiar and make the drama more resonant for today’s audiences. She only partially succeeds.
The setting is intentionally vague. The original is based on a true story that took place in Paris in 1640, whereas this version borrows elements from that and other time periods. While the French names are retained, the locale is not specified.
The smart, minimalist scenic design, by Christine Jones and Amy Rubin, is comprised of dark, abstract shapes accented by the occasional red velvet curtain or purple wisteria vine. The costumes, by Tom Broecker, are largely modern spins on 17th century French designs.
The dialogue, as directed in the script, is “not precious but should be delivered quickly and easily with a modern ear.” This is clear from the top of Act I, when Roxanne shows up at the theater claiming to be “fashionably late.”
The biggest change is that this “Cyrano” is now a chamber musical, fully scored, featuring 18 songs (it is not the first — musical adaptations appeared on Broadway in 1973 and 1993 but failed to find an audience). Eschewing veteran theater musicians, Schmidt recruited Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, and Matt Berninger of the Grammy-winning alt-rock band The National (Carin Besser assisted with the lyrics). The music and lyrics have a contemporary pop flair, a discordant contrast to traditional elements of the production. Anachronisms abound.
When the beautiful Roxanne (Jasmine Cephas Jones, in fine voice) is heartbroken that the equally beautiful yet dimwitted Christian (Blake Jenner, of “Glee” fame) does not measure up in the flesh to his poetry on the page, she sings, “Turn me to water like your letters do, babe; Make me not know whether to laugh or cry.” Babe?
Another bold choice is casting the sensational Peter Dinklage, the multiple Emmy Award-winner for “Game of Thrones,” as the French soldier Cyrano. As a self-identified dwarf, he uniquely embodies the drama’s central message, “Don’t be fooled by outward appearances.” Dinklage is a forceful presence, revealing layers of tenderness beneath the bravado.
As everyone knows, the embittered Cyrano is plagued with a large, ghastly nose, rendering him “unlovable,” yet his wit is as sharp as his sword. Unlike countless Cyrano’s before him, Dinklage does not wear a prosthetic nose. Curiously, Schmidt leaves a few mentions of his large nose intact, while references to his physical stature might have made more sense.
To its credit, this inventive “Cyrano” is as tragically romantic as it should be, heavy with yearning and desire. The circuitous plot, involving Cyrano’s buddy Le Bret, his other rival Duke De Guiche, and the loyal baker Ragueneau, has been streamlined and is easy to follow.
The revelation that it was not Christian but Cyrano who wrote those effusive, soul-baring letters is not as satisfying a climax as we would expect. What’s more, I found the lack of commitment to time and place and the uneasy clash of old and new as bewildering as they were enthralling. Maybe that’s exactly what Schmidt had in mind.
As for the decision to cast Dinklage in the title role, it was a natural one. Schmidt has been married to the award-winning actor for nearly 15 years.
CYRANO | The New Group | The Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 E. 15th St. | Through Dec. 22: Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. & Sun. at 2 p.m. | $107-$252; thenewgroup.org | Two hrs., with intermission