Theater Latte Da’s “C.” is a Charmer

Minneapolis/St. Paul MagazineTad Simons

April 4, 2016

Theater Latte Da is one of only a handful of arts organizations in the past 30 years that has made the leap from small, itinerant theater company on shoestring to established, mid-size theater with a modest budget—and soon, it hopes, a permanent home. TLD announced in March that it is raising funds to purchase the Ritz Theater in NE Minneapolis, which for years was home to the sassy, genre-defying dance troupe Ballet of the Dolls.

Last weekend, TLD opened its new musical, C., based on the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, and proved once again why the company deserves a permanent home—and why it has thrived while so many others haven’t. C. isn’t perfect by any means, but it does enough well to be entertaining throughout (a minor victory on its own), and it exhibits the kind of canny fearlessness that has characterized artistic director Peter Rothstein’s work from the beginning.

Adapted by Bradley Greenwald, with music by Robert Elhai, C. is a spirited re-telling of a familiar story, the tale of a famously silver-tongued swordsman with an ugly nose who is in love with his clever cousin, Roxane, but is afraid to tell her because of his hideous schnozz. Instead, he helps a handsome but tongue-tied young cadet (David Darrow) woo Roxane by telling the boy what to say. From there, the plan goes from bad to worse.

Greenwald’s adaptation follows the basic story faithfully enough, but it’s the small touches combined with the overall direction and a talented cast that raise C. up into the B+ range. Rothstein is a genius at giving well-known musicals a fresh coat of paint. In this case, however, he has transformed a well-known story into a musical, which is a set of artistic challenges all its own.

In most musicals, the numbers trot by one after the other, and the audience claps dutifully after each one. But that’s not how C. is structured. There are traditional songs, yes—folk songs, waltzes, shanties, and a heartfelt ballad or two—but much of the music is packaged in the form of spoken-word riffs and spontaneous-sounding improvisations. Indeed, the best thing about C. is how deftly it blends its theatrical and musical elements to create its own romantic texture.

Cyrano (played by Greenwald) is all about capturing what he calls “the poetry in the room,” by which he means the artistic possibilities of any given moment in life. During a scene when Cyrano is rhapsodizing about Roxane, spinning poetry out of thin air, a string quartet is practicing offstage, providing a quiet musical accompaniment for Cyrano’s words. The words and music don’t create a traditional song, but they do create a powerful dramatic moment that captures the very poetry in the room that Cyrano is talking about.

There are many such moments in C., but there’s also a nice balance of comedy as well, particularly in the antics of various idiosyncratic supporting characters, and from Greenwald himself, who is one of the Twin Cities’ most versatile actors. His Cyrano is alternately brash and vulnerable, cocky and unsure of himself. The one area that could be improved is his allegedly rapier wit. For a man whose tongue is a supposed to be as sharp as his sword, his words don’t slice and sting as much as they should. The playful banter between Cyrano and Roxane (played with grace and spunk by Kendall Anne Thompson) works much better, and between them there is a convincingly uneasy chemistry. Set designer Jim Smart adds to the romantic aura by framing the action with hundreds of lit candles along the foot of the stage, and setting the action in humble Parisian streetscape accented by a large tree and a full, luminous moon.

The Ritz only has 235 seats, which is only slightly larger than The Jungle Theater, and its charmingly rustic atmosphere is perfect fit for an arts organization like Theater Latte Da. If TLD does succeed on its bid to buy the Ritz, the northeast arts district will be that much richer.

C. continues at the Ritz Theater through April 24,