The persistent folly of us mortals when it comes to pursuing romance or power (or both) has provided abundant fuel for any number of theatrical works over the centuries. Among the entertaining examples is an early 18th-century play, Pierre Marivaux's "The Triumph of Love," sparked with cross-gender disguises and sexual-political complications.
That piece found its way into our own time and place, thanks to a much-admired translation by James Magruder that was produced in 1993 at Center Stage, where he was dramaturg. The play subsequently was developed into a musical with a book by Magruder, music by Jeffrey Stock and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Launched in 1996 at Center Stage, the tuned-up show had a short run on Broadway.
"Triumph of Love" is now back on the boards in our region, enjoying something of a, well, triumph at the Olney Theatre. This revival of the clever musical has panache and charm to spare. A vibrant cast, fluently directed by Clay Hopper, digs into the material so engagingly that any weaker elements — some creaky jokes, a few draggy or padded passages (it's a long show) — are easily overlooked.
The story revolves around Leonide, who came to be princess of Sparta through less than honorable means, and unfolds in a topiary-dotted French garden (this is ancient Sparta in name only). Leonide has developed a crush on the sheltered Agis, who just happens to be the legitimate heir to the Spartan throne and is sworn to kill her.
Leonide adopts a male disguise to get closer to Agis, and, before it's all over, pretends to be various people of both genders. She ends up with two men (Agis and his philosopher uncle Hermocrates) and one woman (Hesione, repressed sister of Hermocrates) in love with her. Meanwhile, Leonide's maid, Corine, has adventures of her own with Hesione's gardener, Dimas, and valet, Harlequin (of course, there's a joke about "a Harlequin romance").
Got all that? Never mind. It's better to just surrender and enjoy this frothy farce about the transformative effect of love, or at least sex. And that's easy to do, because the Olney production does not push or belabor anything. A sense of whimsy prevails, along with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge. No one's pretending this is Shakespeare, or Sondheim.
Speaking of Sondheim, his influence is detectable all over the score, in rhythm, melody and wordplay. There's also an occasional nod to Andrew Lloyd Webber and even Frank Loesser — "Henchmen Are Forgotten," a terrific buddy duet for Dimas and Harlequin, would sound right at home in "Guys and Dolls."
The tight-knit ensemble features Patricia Hurley as Leonide. Her singing could use refining, especially on high notes, but her assured, engaging performance gives the production a solid center. At one point, on her way offstage, a delicious smile spreads across her face as she delivers a brisk aside: "I love me in this." She's not alone.
Jake Odmark makes an appealing Agis, deftly capturing the gradual shift in the would-be ruler's world, from naive and bookish to hormonal. He sings pleasantly as well. Stephen F. Schmidt (Hermocrates) and Helen Hedman (Hesione) likewise bring effective acting and vocal skills to their assignments; they both generate considerable sympathy when the final plot twist leaves them facing the deflation of love.
Andrea Andert nearly steals the show as the omni-amorous Corine, bounding about the stage with extra vitality and a wealth of telling facial expressions. She sings up a storm, too. J.J. Kaczynski does a dynamic spin as Harlequin, vocally and theatrically. And Lawrence Redmond is an amusing, gravelly Dimas, who seems to have taken voice lessons from Jimmy Durante.
The action plays out smoothly on Cristina Todesco's unit set, with an excellent six-piece band, led by Chris Youstra at the keyboard, tucked neatly upstage. Pei Lee's fanciful costumes add a good deal to the package.
‘Triumph of Love' continues through May 9 at Olney Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road. Tickets are $26 to $54. Call 301-924-3400 or go to olneytheatre.org.