Look, it’s not a bad idea to turn Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac into a musical, especially if you’ve got Peter Dinklage playing the lead. The 1897 play comes crammed with swooning trios, swordplay, and doomed runs into cannon fire; everyone in it is always on the verge of an emotional confession; there’s a tête-à-tête in a patisserie; it’s already in verse. There have been lots of operatic adaptations, including Franco Alfano’s plush, heavy-footed version and a musical you can listen to on YouTube by Leslie Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn. But that one features a song that goes “Whom do I love? Look at me and guess whom I love.” So let’s say there is still room for someone to do it right.
Erica Schmidt’s adaptation of Cyrano, with music by the National — lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser, music by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner — is not actually doing it right, though it does have many handsome textures and a dazzling central performance. Strengths in the production mean that it’s worth seeing for those with a taste for voluptuous, immersive moodiness, and Dinklage’s return to the stage after so much time in a CGI dragon’s shadow is cause for wild glee. In fact, I’m still holding my breath for the transfer of another Dinklage-Schmidt project, The Imaginary Invalid, which was at Bard for a split second in 2012. (The two are married.) But the show’s beset by inadequate lyrics and a certain sameness in the music, both from song to song and within the pieces themselves. (I wrote down “please God, write a bridge!” at one point, after a ballad had insisted on the same five notes for several minutes.) There’s also a too homogeneous flavor to the book itself.
In Schmidt’s prose adaptation, the poetic swordsman Cyrano (Dinklage) still loves Roxanne (the throaty Jasmine Cephas Jones); Roxanne still yearns for the gorgeous dolt Christian (Blake Jenner); wicked De Guiche (Ritchie Coster) still wants to secure Roxanne for himself. As in Rostand’s original, Cyrano writes Roxanne love letters under Christian’s name, and their lie is only found out “before the blue threshold,” when death comes at last. But Schmidt — the director and conceiver both — also updates and trims. She elides the trappings of 17th-century France in favor of strong cinematic images regardless of era: Her impressively staged battle sequence looks like a scene from Cold Mountain, and Roxanne could pass for a Douglas Sirk heroine. (Tom Broecker did the charming costumes.) No wonder Schmidt sought out the National — in her hands, events take on a lovely music-video quality, and she uses slow motion and even a kind of scenic crossfading like a master.
But she does also drain the play of much of its variation and effervescence. She cuts some of Rostand’s weirdness, and crucially, Dinklage does not wear a big nose, nor does he really pretend to have one. There are still a few references to it. “What woman could love me with this — nose?” Cyrano asks his buddy Le Bret (Josh A. Dawson), and they waggle their eyebrows at each other, clearly meaning something else. But who is Cyrano without his honker, his coat hook, his schnoz? He can still be the brave romantic but not the wise bouffon, ranting and joking and punning his way through hell. No nose equals fewer jokes. There are no wild arias of insults and self-mockery, which means that Cyrano runs out of things to talk about other than lovely Roxanne. There’s a single sidelong reference to Dinklage’s height, but elsewise that acid bite is gone: It’s all just romance, all the time.
Dinklage is the right man for the job, though. Rueful and comic when he needs to be; he’s a swashbuckling soul in pain for the rest. The story is melodramatically rich, but he deliberately underplays; his particular way of doing shy, about-to-be-crushed joy is a mule’s kick to the heart. Surrounded by impressive singers (the genius Grace McLean is wasted in a tiny second-tier part), he holds his own in a kind of Leonard Cohen rumble — the lower he goes, the sweeter he sounds. That’s not a bad place to be, and if his lyrics weren’t so goofy, he’d be killing us. But it is very hard to sell “She was nobody’s daughter / She was god in the world in her pink and white wigs.” Wait. What … wigs is he talking about? And his big duet features this line: “Cuz every time I see you I’m overcome. It’d make you laugh to think someone like me could keep someone like you. I’m so dumb.” We’re a long way from Alexandrines.
Perhaps if you take a fragment and explode it, you might find the Cyrano you’re looking for. If you go that route, don’t pick a song: The Dessner brothers do their most beautiful work in the underscoring that pulses under the prose scenes, velvety stuff that uses modern guitars to create 17th-century sounds. (There’s a trick in the instrumentation, a plaintive classical guitar that seems to turn, at times, into a harpsichord.) In these frozen moments you might revel in the deep dark of the stage, cleverly designed by Christine Jones and Amy Rubin. The set’s main feature is a charcoal-colored wall scribbled over with chalk, with windows that often open into the inkier black beyond. In a portal, we’ll see a group of bakers at a counter or actors at their dressing table, paused in tableau and side lit — slow-moving Rembrandts.
So although the whole becomes repetitive, you’ll find much to delight in at Cyrano. And it’s certainly exciting that the National has turned its collective hand to writing musicals; the Dessners are extraordinary composers. There just needs to be more energy in their leap between one kind of music and another. Songs meant to carry narrative want more variation, and Berninger and Besser’s gloom-pop lyrics belong on an album, where we would listen differently and with more appetite for the random detail. (I am still hung up on those damn wigs.) But Cyrano is a play about carefully attending to words. You can’t insist that we’re hearing poetry and give us “I’m so dumb” instead. We can tell when we’re being palmed off with doggerel. It’s as plain as — well, you know.
Cyrano is at the Daryl Roth Theatre through December 22.