Review: SHN’s underwhelming ‘Roman Holiday’ is simple and safe

Roman Holiday

Looking for adventure in order to escape the doldrums of her life, Princess Anne (Stephanie Styles) finds herself touring Rome with American newsman Joe Bradley (Drew Gehling) in “Roman Holiday,” running through June 18th at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

There’s nothing particularly poor about SHN’s latest production, the pre-Broadway premiere of “Roman Holiday.” The principals and ensemble are all mostly entertaining, some nice choreography, a few big showstoppers and a pleasant energy.

No, it’s not that there is anything inherently wrong about the show. This piece’s death knell is that it is not terribly exciting, but particularly milquetoast.

“Roman Holiday,” the musical that’s based on the 1953 Academy Award winning film of the same name that starred Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, has plenty of sweet performances. It tells the story of the young Princess Anne (a delightful Stephanie Styles), who has grown into some unfathomable boredom at her life, which consists of bopping around to different European cities, giving lots of smiles and waves to those wanting to catch a glimpse of royalty.

As she enters Rome, a city she can barely remember the name of when addressing its citizens, the adventure bug grabs hold of her. Not long after, the sedated princess escapes her banality and finds herself sleeping on a bench, when a reporter from the “American News Service” Joe Bradley (a stoic yet effective Drew Gehling) takes her to his apartment to keep her safe.

While the princess quickly usurps his bed in her compromised state, relegating him to the couch in his cluttered apartment that doesn’t even have a kitchen, he quickly discovers that this young woman is the princess he was supposed to interview later in the day. His journalistic instincts then kick in, realizing that he can get an exclusive interview with her as she escapes for her special Roman holiday under a different name and a new haircut. He even gets his buddy Irving (a fantabulous Jarrod Spector) to sneak along and get some photos. Irving has his own issues, namely dealing with his significant other Francesca (a pleasant Sara Chase), and her quest to get Irving to put a ring on it after many false starts.

The production has lots of nice bells and whistles, with a lovely scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, which featured plenty of pretty details in the form of various sculptures and structures. Some whimsical projections by designer Sven Ortel helped move the story along. Certainly Catherine Zuber’s costumes also provided some very effective period touches.

Where this play suffers is in its thinness. Except for the fabulous number of “Night and Day,” sung with delicious warmth by Spector, Cole Porter’s music comes off as not terribly memorable and quite underwhelming. Alex Sanchez is certainly up to the task with solid choreography and Franc Bruni’s direction comes through with plenty of purpose.

Georgia Engel’s Countess was also a nice touch, but her time on the stage was not served terribly well by the dialogue she was tasked to recite, which came off as one big attempt to get the audience’s laughter. And by the metric of the audience’s reaction, the somewhat cheap trick of the simple running gag of the airheaded royal senior citizen seemed to work well. Meaning that the very forgiving opening night audience laughed plenty.

A piece like “Roman Holiday” does not have the cachet of star power and the luxury of being must see theatre. It is a simple evening that does very little to grab hold of the audience. Now is there room on Broadway for this style of play? Certainly. Not every show on Broadway has to be immigrants rapping as the founding fathers, or teenagers going through angst. A show that has some parallels, “Amelie,” did not have a terribly long run on Broadway, and did not carry a lion’s share of overwhelming reviews, except for maybe my own.

At the end of the day, “Roman Holiday” is a simple, safe and sweet evening of theatre. What it’s not is memorable or necessary. And when it comes right down to it, the task of making this show memorable might be bigger than walking through every tier of the Colosseum.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

SHN presents the pre-Broadway premiere of “Roman Holiday”
Book by Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman and Paul Blake
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
The Word: Not a terribly memorable piece with some nice things happening, but overall, underwhelming.
Stars: 3 out of 5
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission
SHN Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA
Through June 18th
Tickets range from $55 – $275
For tickets and info, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

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