If career options for women were limited in the decades before women’s lib, they were even fewer in the mid-16th Century when Veronica Franco was born, particularly if your mother had at one time been a courtesan, something Veronica found out the hard way when her dreams of marrying her life’s true love were dashed by the realities of Venetian society. For Veronica Franco, there was but one option—to follow in her mother’s footsteps, and if she couldn’t be Marco Venier’s wife, then his mistress she would be.

Director Marshall Herskovitz, best known as the creator of TV’s Thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, and Once and Again, brought Veronica Franco’s life to the big screen as the director of 1998’s Dangerous Beauty, a film which has been turned into a lush new musical, now getting its World Premiere production at the gloriously reborn Pasadena Playhouse.

If Veronica (Jenny Powers) could have had her way, she would have married handsome soldier Marco (James Snyder), and he her, but without sufficient riches to provide an adequate dowry, such a love match is not to be. Upon orders of his father, Senator Pietro Venier (John Antony), Marco weds the wealthy Gulia de Lezze (Morgan Weed), leaving Veronica understandably irate and broken-hearted. When her mother Paola (Laila Robins) first suggests that Veronica follow in her footsteps by adopting the life of a courtesan, the proud young woman balks at the notion of putting her body and soul up for sale. It is only when she learns that courtesans are among the few women allowed access to libraries and education that Veronica finally accepts this as her destiny in life.

Soon, Veronica has all Venice talking about her beauty, intelligence, and wit, and before long a line of wealthy suitors has formed at her door—with two notable exceptions. The first is, of course, Marco, who, decent fellow that he is, is doing his best to remain faithful to Gulia. The other is Marco’s cousin (and would-be poet) Maffio (Bryce Ryness), so threatened by Veronica’s talent and success that he physically attacks her. It’s only when Marco comes to his true love’s rescue that the wealthy golden boy realizes that life without her is no life at all, and from that point on, the key to Veronica’s bedroom door belongs one man alone.

Unfortunately, plague and the Inquisition arrive simultaneously to put Veronica and Marco’s love, and their very lives, in gravest jeopardy.

With book and verse by Jeannine Dominy, music by Michele Brourman, lyrics by Amanda McBroom, and direction by Sheryl Kaller, Dangerous Beauty is not only a gorgeous-to-look-at (and gorgeous-to-listen-to) musical adventure, its entirely female creative team is one Veronica herself would cheer.

“I Am Venice,” Dangerous Beauty’s stunning opening number, which features a septet of Venetian courtesans extolling the charms of Venice, sets the tone for a historical-pop musical that melds contemporary melodies to 16th Century romance, with pageantry and pomp in abundance. Brourman and McBroom’s songs fit comfortably into the Miss Saigon/Les Miz mode, though unlike those sung-through musicals, Dangerous Beauty has considerable dialog, rather too much of it in Act One’s draggy, almost song-free mid section. Still, these are melodies which cry out for a second listen, with nicely-rhymed lyrics by the singer-songwriter who gave us “The Rose.”

Under Kaller’s assured direction, Powers (Broadway’s Greese and Little Women) makes about as spectacular an L.A. stage debut as can be recalled. As the spunky, resilient, almost swashbuckling, yet ever feminine Veronica, Powers not only looks dangerously beautiful but sings “In His Eyes,” “Until Tomorrow Comes,” and the emotional anthem “Confession” in a glorious soprano which ranges from legit to Broadway belt.

USC grad Snyder is an L.A. treasure whose credits range from the title role in Broadway’s Cry-Baby to his recent (and once again titular) comedic star turn in the Troubies’ Oedipus The King Mama. As Marco Venier, he proves the very embodiment of the dashing romantic hero, combining an abundance of charisma and one of the finest voices around to make Marco a man any Venetian would turn courtesan for.

Ryness, Snyder’s fellow Trojan-turned-Broadway star (Hair, Legally Blonde), gets the scene-stealing Mordred-esque role of Maffio and plays it to the hilt. Robins brings depth and vocal richness to Paola, Antony makes for a forceful Pietro, and Broadway vet Rupert (whom Angelino boomers will recall from his teenage starring role opposite Robert Goulet and David Wayne in The Happy Time) shows off smashing pipes as Domenico Vernier.

A pair of unforgettable female performances complete the octet of leads. Weed (seen here recently in Venice) brings beauty and heart-breaking poignancy to the many-layered Giulia. South Pasadena’s very own Megan McGinnis (a recent Ovation Award winner for her starring role in Daddy Long Legs and Beth to Powers’ Meg in Broadway’s Little Women) makes for an absolutely exquisite Beatrice Vernier. Both women make such strong impressions that one wishes they had twice as much stage time, and joining voices with Powers in “Hymn To The Madonna,” they are downright angelic.

Seven dazzling triple-threats (Iresol Cardona, Meg Gillentine, Jessica Lee Keller, Katherine Malak, Angela Wildflower Polk, Angel Reda, and Jessica York) play the ever-present Courtesans, who not only provide plenty of dangerous beauty to gaze upon but serve as a kind of Greek chorus to the action taking place below their balconies.

Completing the cast terrifically with equal parts vitality and virility are Michael Baker (Bishop Della Torre), Marcus Choi (Minister Andrea Tron), Nigel Columbus (Ramberti), Joe Mandragona (Tintoretto), and Matthew Tyler (Grand Inquisitor).

If the Pasadena Playhouse closed its doors with the final performance of a brilliantly downsized Camelot, Dangerous Beauty reopens them with loads of spectacle, from scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s absolutely stunning set to Soyon An’s sumptuous costumes. (The courtesans’ gowns have been designed to show off their leggy beauty and to reveal plenty of cleavage with a quick unzip, revealing this interesting bit of trivia: Renaissance Venetians had the zipper. Who knew?) Russell H. Champa lights sets and costumes with Technicolor dazzle and Venetian shimmer. Jon Weston’s sound design makes lyrics and dialog sound crystal clear. Brian Danner has designed exciting fight sequences, including some thrilling swordplay, expertly executed by Powers and Ryness.

Music director Fred Lassen conducts a super-sounding eight-piece orchestra. Benoit-Swan Pouffer choreographs with imagination and flair.

Mary Michele Miner is stage manager, Joe Witt production stage manager, Gary Wissmann production supervisor, Angela Sidlow company manager, Alex Britton production manager, Joe Langworth associate director, and Darcy Prevost assistant stage scenic designer.

The Pasadena Playhouse has a tradition of superbly produced musicals, both originals and revivals, a tradition which Dangerous Beauty continues with impressive results. Trim some of Act One’s unsung stretches and add a song or two in their place, and you’ll have a musical with definite Broadway potential.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
–Steven Stanley
February 13, 2011
Photos: Jim Cox

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