“Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” the goofy comedy by Moliere with dazzling incidental music by Richard Strauss, is on stage at Kleinhans Music Hall through Sunday. And one line at the end says it all.
“If you’ve ever seen anything more weird/Tell me after the show, and I’ll eat my beard,” says actor Immanuel Naylor.
He was sporting a hilariously fake beard – long story. And as far as I am concerned he does not have to eat it. Because this show is certainly unusual.
Silly as the story can be, the once-in-a-lifetime feel gives it an added dimension. There was something affecting about the feeling that you will not pass this way again. Ask William Preucil, the concertmaster in town for the performance. He is the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra and got the weekend off so he could play this music – just because he never gets the chance.
He seemed on Friday morning to be enjoying the daylights out of the piece. So did everyone on stage – Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra musicians; the Irish Classical Theatre, and dancers from LehrerDance. JoAnn Falletta, on the podium, radiated enthusiasm. So did Vincent O’Neill in the title role, as Monsieur Jourdain, the foolish, nouveau-riche dolt who wants to be an aristocrat. All that joy was catching.
“Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” has its flaws. Strauss fans will regret that there is only 35 minutes of music. (Sorry; that’s all he wrote.) The drama’s structure is uneven. The action drags when O’Neill is not on stage and the orchestra is not playing.
But all the components add up to something worth seeing.
Directed by Fortunato Pezzimenti, the show is often funny as heck. You know you are in for something good right from the start, when two Cinderella footmen part a set of curtains, and JoAnn Falletta skips out. Even funnier is the start of the second act, when Falletta is escorted from the wings by an outrageously costumed and clownish O’Neill.
It is hilarious to have O’Neill in this part. He is so well-known around town as a dapper and graceful figure. He doesn’t hesitate as Jourdain to make a total fool out of himself, and his warmth and impeccable delivery can’t help but sell you on the comedy.
His humanity worked beautifully with Strauss’ music. Strauss felt something for oafs. In “Der Rosenkavalier,” the odious Baron Ochs’ thumping, oom-pah-pah waltz becomes, somehow, one of the most beautiful things in the opera. In “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” too, the music makes the comic poignant.
There were a couple of charming episodes I will remember. In Act I, Jourdain is fantasizing about dancing with a noblewoman he believes himself in love with. As he slips into his dream, an exquisite violin solo begins. In a nod to Fred Astaire, O’Neill picks up some shapely object – a lamp? a bird cage? I couldn’t quite see from the balcony – and begins dancing with it. It’s ridiculous, but you feel for him, with Preucil pouring out those intoxicating melodies. When Jourdain snaps out of it, the music stops and the spell is broken.
Something similar happens later on, with Roman Mekinulov, principal cellist, beautifully plays a solo that is at least as ravishing. (The sky is the limit with Strauss.) You realize that the wistful music is Jourdain’s dreams. That’s why you are empathizing with him, because who hasn’t yearned for something out of reach?
The pared-back Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra rose admirably to the music’s challenges. The woodwinds were delicate and lovely and even the brass got in a few comic honks. The musicians sounded impressive individually and as a group.
The actors for the most part were good foils for O’Neill. Bryan Mysliwy briefly stole the show as a feral fencing master, and Naylor and Zak Ward added their deft touches. The women sounded shrill and too modern for the courtly drama. Maybe O’Neill’s Dublin accent had spoiled me.
The choreography by Jon Lehrer was very creative. Four dancers from LehrerDance added color and light. I don’t want to give away the surprises, but they play imaginatively off the whimsical music. A few times they made me laugh out loud.
This odd adventure repeats at 8 p.m. today and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.