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Waltzing Through Love in the New Musical ‘Paramour’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Name that musical:

Len Cariou plays a European gentleman in the pre-World War I era. He’s in love with a much younger woman, who falls for an even younger man, who . . . well, we won’t disclose the ending. Two waltzing, singing couples swirl around the action as a kind of Greek chorus.

And the musical is . . . ?

Sorry, it’s a trick question. The correct answer is “Paramour” at the Old Globe Theatre, but musical theater fans might well point out that all of the above could also apply to “A Little Night Music,” the 1973 Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler show based on a film by Ingmar Bergman. Cariou played Fredrik Egerman in the original “Night Music.”

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“Paramour” is based on Jean Anouilh’s “Waltz of the Toreadors,” not Bergman. The setting is French, not Swedish. Still, the resemblances and the casting of Cariou make “Paramour” seem like a “Night Music” wannabe.

Certainly, like its better antecedent, “Paramour” is trying to conjure a feeling of rueful farce, in which older men pursue romantic dalliances with younger women but end up looking foolish. Judging from recent events in Washington, the subject is evergreen.

“Paramour” doesn’t have what it takes to make a splash in this competitive arena, however.

“Waltz of the Toreadors,” first produced in 1953, was full of intentional caricatures. General St. Pe was a blustering, pompous rascal who dictated his dubious military memoirs when he wasn’t engaged in trysts with the maids. His wife was a possessive harridan who stayed in bed, despite no particular physical ailment, only to scream threats and demands at her husband. Their two nearly grown daughters were loud, ugly and trivial.

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Even the woman in her mid-30s with whom the general has conducted a chaste affair for nearly two decades--Ghislaine in Anouilh’s play but renamed Angelique here, perhaps for rhyming purposes--is empty-headed. How else to explain her long wait for someone as unattractive and unavailable as the general?

In Anouilh’s play, this younger woman arrives at the general’s house bearing love letters from his wife to another man, assuming that this will finally push the general into action. It’s never explained how she acquired these letters, but at least she displays a modicum of enterprise. In “Paramour,” however, the shaky letter device has been dropped by adapter Joe Masteroff; the woman (lovely Amanda Naughton) issues an ultimatum to the general simply because she has reached a certain age. So she’s even less active than she was in the original.

The other major figure is the general’s young, virginal male secretary. The play’s central irony is that after the general coaches the younger man on how to win a woman, the kid goes out and claims the general’s mistress.

By adding music to this tale, author/lyricist Masteroff and composer Howard Marren presumably wanted to humanize and sentimentalize Anouilh’s caricatures. And so the general (Cariou) sings of the “pale, blue letters” from his lover and how strange it is that “a man of iron and steel can so depend on things so frail to make my existence real.” Near the end, he reflects on his own aging with a military metaphor: “Bugles at sunset are calling you home.”

These two numbers briefly succeed in making the general an iota more thoughtful and sympathetic. Cariou sings them with his usual flair, though--perhaps appropriately, in this context--his voice isn’t quite what it used to be.

Most of the score, however, never transcends the farcical style and, even worse, adds precious little humor of its own, serving merely to draw out the action.

Seizing on the fact that the general’s wife (Melissa Hart) is a former opera singer who sees her life as an operatic melodrama, the show’s creators require her to sing her entire role, but the “opera” they write for her is weak stuff, especially in the crucial scene that closes the first act, when she reveals her inner life to the fuming general in recitative instead of a grand aria.

The overall effect is that the men--the general, his secretary (Joel Carlton) and the doctor (David Pursley) in whom he confides--are allowed to venture slightly beyond cardboard characterizations, but the women remain largely unbearable. This is not a smart strategy in musical theater.

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Joseph Hardy’s staging on Ralph Funicello’s airy but intimate set is in good working order, but the show itself needs to be rethought.

“Paramour,” Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 31. $23-$39. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Len Cariou: General St. Pe

Melissa Hart: Madame St. Pe

Amanda Naughton: Angelique St. Denis

Joel Carlton: Gaston

Danielle Ferland: Estelle

Stacey Lynn Brass: Sidonia

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Catherine Brunell: Paulette/Pamela

David Pursley: Doctor Bonfant

John Seidman: Father Ambrose

Jo Ann Cunningham: She

Lee Lobenhofer: He

Marguerite Shannon: Her

Peter Flynn: Him

Based on “The Waltz of the Toreadors” by Jean Anouilh. Book and lyrics by Joe Masteroff. Music by Howard Marren. Directed by Joseph Hardy. Sets by Ralph Funicello. Costumes by Lewis Brown. Lighting by David F. Segal. Choreography by Melinda Buckley. Orchestrations by Douglas Besterman. Sound by Jeff Ladman. Vocal and incidental music arrangements, musical direction by Joel Fram. Stage manager D. Adams.


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