If Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck are the main stars of “Roman Holiday,” then the city of Rome is certainly the supporting actor. So what happens when you remove the city and are given a blank stage for a musical? Does it work — can it be recreated?
The short answer is yes.
Truth be told, I had mixed feelings when I heard one of my favorite films was being turned into a musical. No doubt, it had some big shoes to fill.
But as I sat in my seat Wednesday night at the Guthrie Theater, I couldn’t help but be pleasantly surprised. From start to finish, the musical is a true treat — one that works quite well with the original storyline and takes only the smallest tweaks to fit in the legendary Mr. Cole Porter’s iconic tunes.
Just as the movie, the musical begins in Rome in 1953, where Princess Ann has just landed as part of her goodwill tour. Princess Ann, played by Guthrie newcomer Stephanie Rothenberg, has hit a wall. Between her over-rehearsed and overly poised greetings and her unforgiving schedule, she’s yearning for a different life — one that allows for adventure, breaks free of the royal duties and is anything but proper.
Rothenberg is flawless in her performance. She radiates a charm and sophistication that is quite reminiscent of Miss Hepburn, without crossing the line of impersonation. Her voice is sweet yet powerful and conveys an innocence that’s honest and believable.
On a decision of impulse, our princess decides to escape out her window and “experiment” with her life — taking her aunt’s friendly advice a bit too drastically. She heads straight to the “ball” that’s being throw across the street by our leading man, Joe Bradley (originated by Gregory Peck) — the news reporter and (slight tweak) aspiring songwriter/playwright who’s looking for his big break.
Bradley, played by fellow Guthrie newcomer Edward Watts, is a charismatic, go-with-the-flow kind of guy with big dreams but not quite as large funds. But all that changes when he stumbles upon a life-changing, chance encounter.
Having just escaped, Princess Ann (finally feeling the effects of a “calming” injection) has fallen asleep at the outdoor pub where Bradley was celebrating a potential big break. Not one to leave a poor, seemingly intoxicated woman out on the street, Bradley offers her a cup of coffee in order to get her back on her feet.
Plans change when our sleepy princess decides instead to sleep it off — in Bradley’s bed. When the morning light comes through Bradley’s window, he realizes not only that this strange woman is still in his apartment but beyond that, this strange woman is, in fact, the princess he was supposed to cover at a press conference that afternoon. The lightbulb goes off and Bradley is struck with a money-making plan — a front page story by Joe Bradley on the princess exploring Rome.
Bradley conceals his knowledge and plays it cool. Princess Ann, alarmed to be in a stranger’s home, decides not to reveal her identity and instead poses as school girl Anya Smith, who’s taking a break from her strict studies. Neither one reveals what they know.
Instead, the princess decides to continue her experiment and agrees to take a journey with Bradley to see the sights in Rome.
I was highly impressed with the musical’s ability to recreate each scene — it’s truly no small feat to fit the backdrop and beauty of Rome onto a moving, yet stagnant stage. But John Miller-Stephany’s impeccable direction makes each scene flow into the next effortlessly.
The entire performance is a beautiful tribute to the iconic film — recreating some of the movie’s best scenes and turning others into delightful dance numbers.
The cast also deserves quite a bit of recognition. From the Countess (played by Michelle Barber) to the (welcomed addition) feisty Francesca Scabulo (Christina Baldwin) and her often dimwitted boyfriend Irving Radovich (Jim Stanek), the stage was packed with immense talent. Stanek’s Irving was also Bradley’s partner-in-crime, adding lighthearted humor where needed.
Watts is an incredible joy to watch — one that only increases in charm as the songs progress. He’s able to take the role that Peck perfected and make it his own, diving a bit more into the romantic side of the character.
One of the best things about this film — and in turn, the musical — is that it’s not a “Hollywood ending.” The story is bittersweet and refreshing — a classic tale that is still charming and relevant, even when revamped.
The direction, casting and classic songs all work perfectly to bring the production together, in a way that embraces the beloved film and gives audiences a new way to enjoy it.
Roman Holiday runs through Aug. 19 at the Guthrie Theater. For tickets or information, click here.