The theater’s most famous nose is mentioned only twice in the new musical “Cyrano,” which opened Thursday at Off Broadway’s Daryl Roth Theatre. Presented by the New Group, Erica Schmidt’s adaptation of the Edmond Rostand classic dismisses the big schnoz as soon as Peter Dinklage says, “What woman could love me with this this” — he pauses to make a large, sweeping gesture over his body — “nose?”
There’s a novel twist on size here, since Dinklage plays the title role with no facial padding. Cyrano’s nose is supposed to be big, but it’s Dinklage’s body that is small.
So much for Schmidt and her songwriters taking any more intriguing liberties with Rostand’s story about a woman (Roxanne) who falls in love with one man’s gifted poetry (Cyrano) but clearly lusts for another man’s handsome physique (Christian).
This adaptation retains the French names but sets the story in some no man’s land of time and place. The musical opens, like the play, in a 17th-century theater in Paris, then jumps to what could be an early 20th-century pastry shop. Later, Cyrano and a troupe of soldiers are caught in a battle where they sing, “We are Southern sons and daughters. Southern metal in our hands.”
Are we now in the south of France, Cyrano and these soldiers fighting the Spanish? Or are we in the American South, and these Confederates are fighting the Yankees? It’s probably the latter, because Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner’s melodic music is very pop-country, especially when sung by Jasmine Cephas Jones’ Roxanne, who never passes up the opportunity to twang, swallow a vowel or embellish with melisma. Playing her faux lover, Blake Jenner’s sweet-voiced Christian is somewhat more restrained.
What the Dessners fail to do is write a terrific song for a singer with only two or three good notes. Dinklage’s singing voice rests at the bottom of his speaking baritone. It might even venture into bass territory, where it rumbles around before rising slightly to go off pitch. The Dessners’ solution is have this Cyrano not sing in the second act, except for a little reprise as he dies at the end.
Having a Cyrano who doesn’t sing much in a musical is like cutting most of Cyrano’s poetry from the original play. Then again, considering Matt Berninger and Carin Besser’s pedestrian lyrics, there’s an advantage to not having your hero sing much. It would ruin his reputation as a poet.
Schmidt, who also directs, creates some very arresting stage pictures, especially her use of Christine Jones and Amy Rubin’s pastry kitchen set, which we glimpse through an upstage window. But in sync with Dinklage’s dour performance, Schmidt directs a rather humorless affair. Without wit or fun peeking through Rostand’s sentimental tale, Cyrano is not impossibly noble. He’s merely masochistic.