The triumphant tale of the great emperor thrills at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
Photos by Ric Kallaher
His is a story that has enchanted generations. How a young, talented, idealistic young soldier from Corsica became the darling of the French Republic, then its emperor, with a domain spanning across Europe and beyond, only to fall in a foolhardy winter campaign in Russia. Viewed from the end of the tale, Napoleon bears a mixed legacy, and never is that more clear than in this musical written by Andrew Sabiston and Timothy Williams, and narrated by his disappointed and betrayed benefactor, Talleyrand.
Napoleon, a reworking of the 1994 Canadian musical that eventually made its way to the West End, is an intimate, behind-the-scenes political drama about the making of an emperor, an epic story made small by focusing on the smaller players who made him who he was. From first rebellion as a young man to his final exile and death, and all of the triumphs and massacres along the way, we witness Napoleon, his enchanting wife Josephine and Talleyrand, the man in the shadows, as they seek lasting greatness for themselves and for France. With plenty of bitter, sarcastic commentary to frame the scene, of course.
Despite stooping in the shadows, Matthew Patrick Quinn's Talleyrand is a star, working through his own complicated emotions regarding the brilliant young man he came to love as the play progresses. His storytelling is in some sense an act of confession, and the audience his confessor; as we soon learn, he is unable to change the story even if he wants to (though he is more than capable of withholding information temporarily for the sake of dramatic effect). Meanwhile, this narrative device absolves the character of Napoleon (Joseph Leo Bwarie) from having to be a traditional protagonist or to justify his increasingly violent actions. Instead, we as the audience can simply fall under his spell, just as France once did.
Joining these two power players on stage is an ensemble of a dozen or so performers to depict armies of thousands, the treacherous French court and more. Dressed entirely in black and with a preponderance of eyeliner, the entire cast is painted in a romantic, gothic if rather overdramatic mood. Standing out from the mass of skintight leather pants and ripped jeans are the unapologetically self-centered and sensual Empress Josephine (Margaret Loesser Robinson), Napoleon's triumph and his Achilles heel, and his younger brother Lucien (Christopher J. Nolan), an engaging and sympathetic foil to the conqueror as he loses sight of the ideals that once energized him.
Confined to a relatively small stage, the production relies on a few multi-use set pieces and a lighting design consisting largely of a dimly lit stage and spotlights following Napoleon and Talleyrand throughout each scene--an effect which is at times distractingly messy, though perhaps excusable in the context of a theater festival with limited rehearsal time. Still, even as the action of Napoleon often feels as though it is bursting out of the confines of the stage, its smaller, more intimate moments like those between Napoleon and Josephine, or eventual Marshal Anton and his lover Clarice, feel particularly poignant.
But what truly distinguishes this stunning musical from the rest is its phenomenal, operatic score, triumphant and celebratory and yet intimate at the same time, and often sounding as though it is performed by an ensemble twice the size. Whether it is the moment Napoleon brings together and inspires his troops before his first near-impossible battle in Austria ("The Dream Within"), Talleyrand and his minions' dastardly number about the dark side of politics ("A Cutthroat Game") or Lucien's final heartbroken lament sung from a prison cell his brother put him in ("Calm Before the Storm"), this extraordinary music will make you feel for the people of Imperial France more deeply than you could have ever anticipated. Though of course, the one refrain that will stay with you long after the curtain falls is the moment of greatest grandeur and celebration: "Victory! Once again the trumpet call / Calling out to one and all / The day is won, the day is won!"
Napoleon is first and foremost an emotional experience, one that--even if you know the whole history--will keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. Its frequent moments of cruelty and of cynicism merge expertly with an energizing, uplifting sense of progress and jubilation, capturing the complexity of Napoleon's reign and his legacy. We can only hope that, like many shows at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, this production is only the beginning, a trial run before going on to a larger and more polished version of the play that so thrills audiences. Whatever else he may have been, Napoleon is certainly a star.
Napoleon plays at the Signature Center as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival through July 22.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.