The Game, book and lyrics by Amy Powers and David Topchik, music by Megan Cavallari. Directed by Julianne Boyd.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Try one or two again - they’re only men!"
In 1782 French Artillery office Choderlos de Laclos published an epistolary novel that made his own nation shudder at its portrayal of immorality in the upper classes. Even so it sold out its first printing and much later a copy, no title or author on its cover, was found in the personal collection of Marie Antoinette. An underground classic through the centuries it made its way back into the light of day in the mid-20th century when it took the world by storm. In the author’s own original preface he wrote, "Several of the characters described by the author have such abominable morals that it is impossible to suppose they could have lived in our century - a century in which (as everyone knows) all men are worthy, and all women so modest and reserved." Was he serious? Or not? The new musical based on his book, Les Liaisons Dangereuses" entitled "The Game" may help to answer that question.
Developed in the early part of this century at Barrington Stage Company by artistic director Julianne Boyd, the show has opened at their Pittsfield home as the final mainstage production of the 2011 season. Having seen the workshop production in 2003 it seems to me that the piece has grown and changed over the years, or perhaps I have done the growing. I don’t really know. What I do know is that in spite of the questionable morality of the people who occupy the world of this musical play what I didn’t enjoy then I do now. Perhaps we’ve all changed since then.
Briefly the story is this (and forgive the difficulty of the names - they are French): Marquise de Merteuil and her close associate Vicomte de Valmont, once lovers and now friends, wager on the moral undoing of several people. Each has her or his reasons for the bet and for the goals of seduction. Each has people they hate or despise or dislike and the lives of these people are in the hands of the Marquise and Vicomte. They each achieve their nefarious sexual goals and each is taken down by their own actions.
In a musical it is best to have at least one (if not two) person whom you like and essentially root for. In this show you start out hoping for the best for two young people caught up in the web of the Marquise, but by the end of the play you really couldn’t care less about them. They have willingly given themselves up to the loose morality of the generation in which they live. Even a modest and traditionally pure and faithful wife is far too easily wooed into the world of easy virtue and so loses our respect and our prayers. With no one to root for, the show begins to lose its charm and its hold and the final result is an evening with wonderful talent exposed in roles that make us almost wish we had stayed home.
I’m no moralist. I’m not blameless in the errors of my own youthful exploits and adventures. I can understand and sympathize with what takes place here. However, this story is much more suited to a straight play, or even an opera where death and retribution to music is almost a requirement of the form. Nowhere on the program do I see a rating comparable to a PG-13 or an R the way you would in a film on this topic. Don’t let that title fool you, folks; The Game is not a family show.
The score by Megan Cavallari and Amy Powers & David Topchik is melodious and relatively unremarkable. There are a few beautiful pieces that, post-show, don’t linger in the brain or on the tongue. They vary in style from mock-period, to standard ballad, to operetta. The title song, which opens the plot point of the show, starts badly with a sung dialogue that would have been better spoken over the music until the refrain catches in the throat and demands to be sung. A trio, "Until Then," was a standout in the first act as was the Marquise’s solo, "Wanting Her More," which ends the first act and lets us see into the darkness and truth behind her beauty.
In the second act she brings down her cousin Cecile’s sense of self-worth in the dynamic duet "They’re Only Men." Valmont has the powerful solo "How Could I Dare?" in the second half of the show and his lady-love, Madame de Tourvel sings the extraordinary "My Sin" (not a song about perfume, but about the odor of passion) and final two duets "Victory is Mine" and "Finally, Finally" bring a new level of passion to the proceedings.
All of this included, the show is not emotionally rewarding for the audience. The show leaves its audience alienated and judgmental.
A beautiful and powerful Rachel York instills as much humanity as possible into the Marquise de Merteuil. She is stunning to look at and amazing to hear. It’s the sort of performance that should win an award for she makes her character’s chilled heart and acidic soul into something worth watching. It isn’t just her looks and her grace that does the trick here, it is an actor’s gift that she brings to the stage. At her most sensual and appealing she shows her devil’s face to her victims and she makes that a treasurable moment each time.
Her Valmont is played by Graham Rowat who is her equal in many things but who never shines out with that satanic power. Instead he is clearly a victim as much as he is a victimizer. We can never forget that his willingness to play the game of seduction, and then the game of war, is a game of his own choosing. Even so, Rowat at his most charming is disarming to both his victims and to his audience as well. He is very good at making everyone forget how besotted his character is of the woman behind the game.
Cecile is played by Sarah Stevens who looks young, and plays young nicely. Her singing is at its best in the middle range of her voice for when she takes it up into her higher register she becomes shrill with a fast vibrato that is unpleasant to hear. In all her performance is delightful as is that of her swain, Chevalier Danceny, played to the enthusiastic hilt by Chris Peluso. Cecile’s mother, Madame de Volanges is given a fascinating Elsa Lanchester quality by the excellent Christianne Tisdale.
Madame de Tourvel, the faithful wife who loses her soul to Valmont’s wickedness, is beautifully played by Amy Decker whose elegance and style deserves a much more beautiful name than just Amy Decker. Her combination of physical beauty and delicacy is very special indeed. Her lovely voice and her dramatic abilities just push her up additional notches. Here is a player with true star qualities.
And welcome back to Joy Franz who played here in the early versions of the show. As Valmont’s aunt she sings grandly and looks great. She is a joy indeed.
Julianne Boyd’s production is special. She has clearly put into this production everything she has to give to such an endeavor and it shows. The sets designed by Michael Anania flow as she needs them to and the extraordinarily beautiful costumes by Jennifer Moeller aid in creating the perfect picture Boyd has seen in her mind and transferred to the stage for us to witness. Jeff Croiter and Grant Yeager have turned light into more than mere illumination. Ryan Winkles fight choreography for the duel in act two is special also. Boyd’s assembled masses bring us into that class of French aristocracy in the late 18th century where reality and fiction blend into a world of their own. It is Laclos’ land. It is the late-night hostel of Marie Antoinette. It is the musical place where no matter how much we dislike the people we see, the picture is still very nice.
Graham Rowat and Rachel York; photo: Kevin Sprague
Amy Decker as Tourvel; photo: Kevin Sprague
Sarah Stevens and Chris Peluso; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Game plays at the Barrington Stage Company’s mainstage at 30 Union Street in Pittsfield, MA through August 28. For information and tickets, call the box office at 413-236-8888.