It’s a voguish year for biographies as entertainment – just look at the Oscar nominations if you disagree. The first full production of the resurrected Pasadena Playhouse, Dangerous Beauty, is right on trend. Based on the story of a real-life Venetian courtesan, Veronica Franco, this sumptuous musical hits the highs and lows of the tumultuous life of a woman from the 1500s whose beauty and brains caused her to be loved, scorned, feared and persecuted.
The virginal, book-loving Veronica (Jenny Powers, who is terrific in the role) is, unbeknownst to her, the daughter of a once-powerful courtesan (Laila Robins, both proud and regretful, with a beautiful voice to match). Veronica’s birthright precludes her marriage to the highborn Marco, so she in turn becomes a courtesan, rising to be the city’s most admired seductress, while free to also be a poet and a scholar. Nobody would expect the raffish, angsty Maffio (excellently played by Bryce Ryness, who initially channels his inner Lou Reed) to turn Inquisitor, but that’s what happens in Act II, and Veronica is accused of witchcraft and of promoting Venice’s downfall.
The large cast romps and writhes all over the clever set, with the women lavishly costumed in Vegas-y, period breakaway dresses and the men in leather tights (good!) and inexplicable Mozartian jackets (bad!). There are plenty of steamy moments and even a sword fight (between Veronica and Maffio). Veronica and Marco are lovers you can root for whole-heartedly, and the play skewers pretension and hypocrisy.
Dangerous Beauty is a gorgeously art-directed, modern feminist take on power and living outside the box, a celebration of language and love. It’s a little bit light opera, a little bit rock and roll, and manages to be both entertaining and thought-provoking. You’ll ask yourself “wife… or courtesan?” as you walk out of the theater.
The Playhouse has high expectations for this original musical, which is based on a movie based on a scholarly biography; Artistic Director Sheldon Epps is hoping it travels to Broadway just like previous productions Baby It’s You and Sister Act. It just might be dangerously beautiful enough to make the voyage.
Runs Feburary 13 – March 13
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., 626.356.7529 , pasadenaplayhouse.org