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New Stage Version of ‘Roman Holiday’ Doesn’t Quite Measure Up to Audrey Hepburn (But Hey, What Could?)

Stage adaptation of the 1953 film classic premiers in San Francisco, then it’s on to Broadway.  

Stephanie Styles and Drew Gehling in SHN's Roman Holiday.

 

There’s a famous scene in the 1953 Oscar-winning film Roman Holiday, in which Gregory Peck, playing an American journalist going incognito for a day out—and hopefully for an inside scoop—with Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Anne, herself on the run from her overbearing keepers, takes the princess to the famous Boca Della Verita, or Mouth of Truth. Honest souls, which neither character is, can stick their hand inside the mouth freely, he explains. Liars’ hands will be bitten off.

Hepburn, accepting the challenge, gingerly sticks her hand inside the maw, before pulling it back out. “Let’s see you do it,” she then says to Peck. With a bit of a knowing wink, Peck sticks his hand in. Then, suddenly, he recoils in pain, his missing hand hidden up his sleeve. Hepburn squeals. 

Supposedly, the moment in the film was ad-libbed, and so Hepburn’s shock—eventually giving way to irrepressible laughter—was entirely genuine. You can’t help but smile. All of which is to say, it’s a fine line between charm and schmaltz. 

It’s a line that’s tight-rope-walked throughout the stage adaptation of Roman Holiday, which formally opened Tuesday night at SHN’s Golden Gate Theater (running through June 18). And while the production mostly lands on the right side of that equation, it’s practically impossible to re-create the warmth of Audrey Hepburn giving into a fit of giggles, isn’t it? Short of that, the famous scene comes off as just a dull gag everyone can see coming from a mile away.

Still, Roman Holiday is likely to find a welcome audience among some, because despite its flaws, it is enjoyable enough as a work of fluff. Following its brief stint at the Golden Gate, the production is set to decamp for Broadway—Paul Blake and Mike Bosner, the show’s producers, elected to stage its pre-Broadway trial here in San Francisco, precisely because of their success doing the same thing with previous productions like Irving Berlin’s White Christmas and Beautiful: The Carol King Story, the latter of which premiered in 2013 at the Curran and went on to be nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, after reaching the Big Apple.

In both cases, the idea was to test out the show on a live audience, then make tweaks accordingly before stepping into the bright lights of Broadway. (Roman Holiday audience members have been receiving email follow-ups to the show that include a survey.) In fact, San Francisco has often played host to Broadway-bound productions—Wicked, Legally Blonde, and Kinky Boots all debuted at SHN—a fact that Blake, who got his start as an associate director at the American Conservatory Theater, credits to the city’s “very intelligent theatergoing audience.”

It’s likely they’ll need to break out their editing pencils for this job. Having not yet received my survey in my inbox, I’ll respectfully offer my own two cents here.

Roman Holiday has much going for it: The songs, all taken from Cole Porter, are predictably wonderful, especially “Night and Day,” as sung by the photographer sidekick Irving (Jarrod Specter) and Francesca, a sultry nightclub singer (Sara Chase). However, some in the crowd seemed perplexed by the Porter connection, and the fact that the lyrics made only passing thematic reference to the plot made some numbers feel inessential. 

The choreography, arranged by Mark Hummel, was fun and impressive, as the ensemble often transformed from midcentury mod café patrons and street vendors into tumbling, frolicking jazzy acrobatics, though there were probably too few dancing scenes to truly pump up the energy. (At one point a street mime does a somersault and, in the process, stuffs his head into a top-hat that had been on the ground—which is kind of amazing, and also kind of exactly what plagues this production.)

Then there’s the set design, which was superbly rich and engrossing. The cramped, boho apartment that our protagonist, the American journalist Joe Bradley, lives in (well, perhaps not cramped by San Francisco standards) seamlessly gave way to Roman streetscapes and even an ornate Trevi fountain.

That all needn’t be changed—and neither, for that matter, should the performances of supporting actors Georgia Engel as Princess Anne’s loving and daffy aunt—who keeps hitting the same one-note joke but manages to get laughs each time—and Spector as a photographer friend tagging along for the ride. 

Somehow, though, the show doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. Perhaps that has to do with the source material—you’re asking a lot of anyone to replicate Gregory Peck’s or Audrey Hepburn’s buoyant charm, and in a less intimate medium than film, no less. I could also do with a bit less of the Italian caricature and fuggettaboutits. Either way, the bigger offense is that we seem to skip the part where Princess Anne (played by Stephanie Styles) and the journalist Joe (Drew Gehling) actually fall in love—and for that matter, where’s the outrage when she discovers his betrayal? (He’s been faking it in order to write a behind-the-scenes profile on her, tsk tsk.) The emotional investment in their union is taken for granted.

All quibbles, perhaps, but enough to have me muttering to myself as I shuffled out of the theater—and a bit jealous of a pair of friends we ran into on Market Street before the show, off in the opposite direction to see Hamilton, SHN’s other show, at the Orpheum Theater, for the first time. And yes, of course it’s unfair to measure anything against A-Ham and company, but that’s the cost to Roman Holiday of batting cleanup in the SHN summer season. (Bosner, for his part, acknowledged the impossibility of following the most celebrated production of the past decade: “Nothing can compete with Hamilton,” he said. “We’re not trying to.”)

We’ll say no more about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s little show, and call that deference to the music of Cole Porter, the Lin-Manuel of his time. But if you’ll permit just one more comparison, consider Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, which recently premiered at Berkeley Rep (and runs through July 9). Another Bay-to-Broadway trial run and another film-to-stage adaptation, it shares much in common with Roman Holiday, but it manages to tap into the original’s joy and spirit far more convincingly.

Still, Roman Holiday is quite charming, and the music is reason enough to keep you interested. It’s just really tough to beat curling up on the couch and watching the original on TV. 

 

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Email Ian A. Stewart at istewart@modernluxury.com
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