Artists are often strange, hybrid creatures: at once intensely proud of their craft, yet anxious that they won't be remembered, that they won't leave a real legacy. Such is Flaminio Scala, the leader of a ragtag band of performers in The Glorious Ones. Set in 16th-century Italy, this 2007 musical follows the onstage and offstage antics of the troupe as they seek to be innovators in the commedia dell'arte style of improvisational comedy.
The Glorious Ones is presented by Music Theatre of Madison on the Bartell Theatre's Drury Stage. There are just two more shows: Friday and Saturday evening. You'll have to act quickly if you want to catch this lesser-known musical written by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (better known for Ragtime).
You don't need to know anything about commedia dell'arte to enjoy the show; in fact, you'll learn how it provided the foundation for comedy that came centuries later, from Charlie Chaplin to Lucille Ball.
For a description of the show, it's hard to surpass the New York Times, which called it "both joyfully naughty and totally innocuous." Indeed, the performers sing of having "one hand on the crotch and one hand on the heart." Despite backstage lusting, love triangles and petty professional jealousies, Scala's band of players have sincere artistic ambitions.
MTM director Megan Randolph has assembled a sprightly, solid cast. One of the standouts is Lisa Spierer as the sensuous Columbina; she has a naturalness on stage that is just right for this show, which never feels like a period piece even though it's set over 400 years ago.
Mark Snowden, as the tailor Pantalone, has a droll ease and is just plain enjoyable to watch. Though he pines for Columbina, she's in love with handsome Flaminio (Wes Johnson), who has one of the strongest voices in the show.
Rounding out the comic team are George Gonzalez (one of the founders of fellow local theater company Bricks), who adds some inspired pantomime, and Elizabeth Snellings as Armanda Ragusa, an odd girl who gives up scrubbing floors in a convent to join the troupe. Snellings grew on me throughout the course of the show, and her performance of the tune "Armanda's Sack," in which she reflects on the meager physical remnants of Flaminio's life, is genuinely touching. For me, it was the emotional core of the show.
As the ingénue Isabella, Ali Close shows off an excellent voice, though the harmonies between her and Nick Barsuli (playing Francesco, her lover) could use some fine-tuning.
Mask and movement coaching by Jacob Mills, in cooperation with Randolph's direction, has helped create a production that is dynamic and light on its feet. The Glorious Ones manages to be frisky, silly, and occasionally juvenile -- yet ultimately poignant.
It's not easy to make a creative living, whether in 16th-century Italy or 21st-century Madison, and this MTM production is a worthy look at the drive to create.