Review: The Glorious Ones (The Civic Light-Opera Co.)

The humorous styles of Commedia Dell’arte are brought to life in The Glorious Ones at the Zion Cultural Centre in Toronto

There’s something exciting about seeing a play about one of your passions. When I was in university my very first research paper was on an Italian theatrical style called Commedia Dell’arte: an improvisational, sketch based style that catered to the common people with bawdy humour, slapstick and acrobatics that was at that time completely unheard of. The influence of Commedia Dell’arte is still felt in todays comedies with the most notable being the character of Harlequin, a witty servant character who often outsmarted boisterous villains with his athletics and humour, whose personality can still be seen in characters like Bugs Bunny or pretty much every Disney sidekick ever.

When I learned that The Civic Light-Opera Company was putting on a production of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ The Glorious Ones I was very excited. Not only is it a play all about the origins of Commedia Dell’arte, but it was also written by the duo responsible for such Broadway hits as Ragtime and Seussical. Such an exciting choice was perfect for The Civic Light-Opera Company’s 100th production, so I had high hopes going into the show.

On the surface, the narrative of The Glorious Ones seems dry, being a fictionalized retelling of Flaminio Scala and his troupe of “cranky, maladjusted misfits” who formed the first Commedia Dell’arte troupe and their personal developments alongside the evolution of the art. As the narrative develops however a deeper story comes through — an exploration of the actors and their drives, the pain and joy of performance and the need of every person to leave some kind of mark on the world and be remembered beyond their time.

Lofty themes and ideas can only go so far without a strong script, and in this The Glorious Ones shines. The dialogue sparks with a deftness many musicals struggle with. Each character speaks with a unique and intriguing voice, alluding to the depths hidden behind the garish masks and simplistic roles they play when the curtain comes up. Various scenarios are peppered throughout the play showcasing examples of the Commedia Dell’arte style, unquestionably the high point of the production as a whole, especially the bawdy and explicit “Armanda’s Tarantella” which describes in thinly veiled innuendo the sexual education of Armanda (Susan Sanders).

Sadly the performance itself couldn’t live up to the standard of the script, with the actors struggling to embrace the frenetic pacing and often seeming lost in the words without truly comprehending what’s being said. Often I found myself during moments of repartee commenting to myself “that was a punchline!” as the actors barreled on, barely registering the joke that had just been said in order to move to the next line. This problem became even more apparent in the musical numbers. The cast is able to hit the notes and hold them when necessary, but far too often that felt like their only goal — ignoring the emotional context in favor of technical success. For songs like “Absalom” and “I Was Here” this was very unfortunate as they’re two very powerful pieces that in many ways encapsulate the entire theme of the story but were washed out with what seemed like a lack of commitment from the actors.

One noticeable exception to this was the role of Columbina (Joanne Kennedy). Initially playing the role of the young Ingenue she is forced to acknowledge her increasing age and potential replacement in the second act’s “My Body Wasn’t Why”, a powerful song that woke up the audience with its careful balance of vulnerability and strength. If anything I wish Kennedy had gone further with it, really letting her character bare her soul in the strongest moment of the second act.

There’s no question The Glorious Ones is an ambitious project from The Civic Light-Opera Company and it’s important for troupes like it to keep pushing their boundaries in order to grow. Sadly I feel in this case they overextended themselves and just couldn’t reached the heights they hoped for. Nevertheless they deserve respect for trying, as in the end that’s all any actor can do.