Olney Theatre's 'Triumph of Love' has great comedy, performances and music

Captivating: Patricia Hurley and Stephen F. Schmidt are engaging in
Captivating: Patricia Hurley and Stephen F. Schmidt are engaging in "Triumph of Love." (Stan Barouh)
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By Nelson Pressley
Monday, April 26, 2010

High sentiment and low comedy harmonize splendidly in "Triumph of Love," the underrated 1996 musical based on a durable 18th-century play by Pierre de Marivaux. A rose with sharp thorns, the story involves a ruthless young princess who seduces not one but three people, all to get her unwitting man. Hearts get broken along the way.

Ah, but such sublime suffering! The Olney Theatre Center has revived this show with care, placing a six-piece orchestra onstage and letting the balmy tones of the conspicuously placed harp set the mood for Cupid's mischief. And in Stephen F. Schmidt and Helen Hedman, director Clay Hopper has a pair of performers who delicately render the complications of unexpected romance.

The setting is the 18th-century garden of a severe philosopher named Hermocrates (Schmidt) and his spinster sister Hesione (Hedman). This prim, mature duo is sworn to intellectual pursuits and the banishment of whimsy, and they impart these cool precepts to Hesione's nephew Agis (Jake Odmark), a prince whose crown has been usurped.

The juicy twist in the Marivaux play is that the usurper -- Princess Leonide -- is smitten by Agis without knowing who he is. Punch-drunk with a case of love at first sight, Leonide breaches the garden walls and woos her way toward Agis through both of his defenders, Hesione and Hermocrates.

This involves not-so-subtle disguises and outrageous lies, of course, as well as underhanded help from Leonide's servant Corine, the hunchbacked gardener Dimas and a valet named Harlequin. The clowning is sometimes a trifle forced in this production, though it's mostly easy to go along with Lawrence Redmond's snarling hunchback shtick as Dimas and Andrea Andert come-hither gusto, which peaks during the unabashedly trampy "Mr. Right."

The groaning puns and vaudeville shtick are winningly embraced by Andert, Redmond and J.J. Kaczynski's Harlequin in "Henchmen Are Forgotten," one of several memorable numbers in the Jeffrey Stock-Susan Birkenhead score. The other musical standouts come from the subtler end of the spectrum, where the fragility of unguarded hearts is explored.

These songs don't come from Leonide and Agis, but from the frosty philosophers in sudden thaw. "Serenity," a lilting, beautifully probing song, finds Hesione contemplating the hazards of romance, and while Hedman's not a great singer, her emotionally supple rendition gives this comedy the right measure of gravity.

So, too, does the ginger duet Hedman shares with Schmidt's intimidating but newly vulnerable Hermocrates in "The Tree." Schmidt's creamy baritone is perfect for Hermocrates's somber pronouncements, and he and Hedman have an admirably light touch not only with the songs, but also with the inspired costumes that come their way as the characters bloom.

Leonide's feisty numbers aren't the strength of the show, but they serve, and Patricia Hurley is appropriately beaming and big-voiced in the role. Odmark has charm, too, as Agis, though it's sometimes a trifle understated. That's okay; the story, adapted by James Magruder with equal affection for French drama and musical comedy, is a deliberate push and pull between head and heart, between elevated wit and below-the-belt jokes. Hopper's sensitive and slapsticky production largely gets it right.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Triumph of Love

Book by James Magruder, music by Jeffrey Stock, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Directed by Clay Hopper. Scenic design, Cristina Tedesco; costumes, Pei Lee; lights, Mark Lanks; musical direction, Christopher Youstra; choreography, Tara Jeanne Vallee. About 2 1/2 hours. Through May 9 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit

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