Dangerous Court Intrigue Abounds in “The Art of Pleasing Princes”; Princeton University Players Present Staged Reading of New Musical
“THE ART OF PLEASING PRINCES”: The Princeton University Players have presented a staged reading of “The Art of Pleasing Princes,” performed April 28-30 at the Whitman Theater. Directed by Solomon Bergquist, the new musical takes place in a fantasy kingdom that is beset by court intrigue and labyrinthine conspiracies.Above, from left, are Maddox (Alex Conboy), Rowan (Lana Gaige), Jason (Andrew Matos), Louis (Delaney Rose), and Maya (Miel Escamilla). (Photo by Elliot Lee)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Princeton University Players, a student-run organization whose website describes it as “Princeton’s home for musical theater,” has presented a staged reading of a new, student-written show, The Art of Pleasing Princes, at Whitman College’s Class of 1970 Theater this past weekend.
With a book and lyrics by Mel Hornyak and Elliot Valentine Lee, and music by Lee, the musical is set in a pseudohistorical fantasy kingdom — but with a viewpoint and aesthetic that are resolutely contemporary. The show subverts tropes of the fantasy genre — and to an extent, musical theater.
A rogue prince leads an unlikely group of co-conspirators in a plot to assassinate his estranged, tyrannical father. Along the way, we discover the protagonists’ secret ambitions and forbidden relationships.
The performance is classified as a staged reading, as the performers are permitted to use scripts. However, the show has the choreography, costumes, and props of a full production.
The Art of Pleasing Princes opens with a recognizable image. The king’s favorite guard, Jason Bartok (infused with affable sincerity by Andrew Matos) is kneeling at the feet of the monarch’s daughter, princess Maya Astor (Miel Escamilla), proposing marriage to her. The tableau will be seen again later, with a twist.
The opening number (“Your Day in Court”) begins with a waltz that is artfully exaggerated in its delicacy. The courtiers profess excitement at the (presumably) impending royal wedding, and set the too-perfect scene: “Every man has his duties; every servant his place; every lady her suitors … our lives our perfect, charmed.”
Clearly, this equilibrium is just waiting to be upended. Indeed, as the musical language gradually sheds the pastiche, the lyrics describe the scene as a “careful charade.” The ensemble sings of the ruthless politics at court, “You won’t know if you’ve made a mistake here, ‘til you’re the only one kept from the ball.”
A program note explains that Hornyak wants the show to be a “fun, dramatic, campy fairytale that straight people figure in constantly, using characters that happen to be queer.” Lee adds that the nature of the writers’ collaboration is reflected in the characters’ journeys. “Crafting this during our long-distance relationship COVID year allowed us to explore a world in which characters similarly fall in love under stressful circumstances, but also allowed us to imagine the bliss of being in the same place as your partner at a time when we couldn’t.”
A key protagonist is Louis Rosemont (Delaney Rose), a baronet who serves as the king’s (mild-mannered but disgruntled) secretary. In “When You’re Small,” Louis expresses frustration at being “yesterday’s pet,” now that the king holds Jason in high regard. After an introduction that is rhythmically slow, the tempo becomes brisk to match the ambitious Louis’ restlessness. Louis plans to attempt to regain the king’s favor — by killing Prince Rowan (Lana Gaige), the estranged heir whom, it is rumored, the king wants dead.
Later, Louis sneaks into the sleeping Rowan’s room to commit the murder, but realizes that he cannot bring himself to do it. (This plot point recalls Seymour’s squeamish inability to kill the sadist dentist Orin in Little Shop of Horrors.) Rowan wakes up, and slyly suggests to Louis that they should join forces; Louis has cunning but lacks Rowan’s steely nerve.
We learn that Rowan is determined to kill his father because the king murdered Rowan’s mother. Rowan has made a previous attempt on the king’s life, in which he enlisted the help of a mage, Maddox Harowitz (Alex Conboy). That attempt failed, landing Maddox in prison. In “Blood Oath,” Rowan lures the reluctant Louis into helping him to successfully assassinate the “tyrant.”
Gaige delivers an impassioned rendition that sells the prince’s fury and dangerous determination. Director
Solomon Bergquist’s staging of the number
underlines Rowan’s manipulative, controlling nature; Rowan grabs Louis, pulls him close, and restrains him. Louis is caught in the web of Rowan’s plan.
Later the two sing about their unlikely partnership in “Allies with Benefits,” a nod to A Chorus Line-style toe-tappers, for which costume designer Tanaka Dunbar Ngwara outfits the duo with hats that recall headwear from that musical’s finale.
Rowan often expresses contempt for his half-sister Maya, whom he sees as willing to do anything to serve her ambition. Actually, Maya wants to become queen so that she can revoke laws forbidding magic, which would permit Maddox to be released from prison. Although Maya is engaged to Jason, because it is expected, she does not love him, because she secretly is in love with the mage.
Maya visits Maddox in prison. Sound designer Alexis Maze enhances the sequence with sounds of water dripping, enabling the audience to envision an uncomfortably damp cell.
One of the strongest and most rhythmically interesting songs in the score is “Love Doesn’t Know Time,” a duet in which Maddox and Maya discuss their future together. The number is one of the most effective songs in the score, in terms of using music to give each character a distinctive voice; gentle syncopations for Maddox, a more pulsing segment for Maya, and some effective counterpoint.
Eventually, Rowan, Maddox (who, unsurprisingly, is weary of the prince), Louis, and Maya form yet another plan: Jason will be framed for murdering Maya, which would allow the latter to escape palace life and be with Maddox. To this end, Louis distracts Jason, in a duet titled “Talk About it With You,” by pretending to discuss the intricacies of love. The number ends with the two holding hands — but this is so that Louis can steal Jason’s dagger and put in motion the plan to frame him.
When the naïve but good-natured Jason is condemned to death for the imaginary murder, Louis is remorseful and begs a disdainful (and increasingly paranoid) Rowan to plead with his father for mercy. The king is never seen or heard onstage, except in the form of a silhouette behind a sheet with which set designer Ellie Makar-Limanov furnishes the stage.
However, we probably do not have to take the protagonists’ word as to the king’s cruel nature. The request for mercy is denied, necessitating a rescue plan that leads to development of a relationship between Jason and Louis.
Eventually, in “Hold Back the Tide,” Maddox reminds an increasingly autocratic and oppressive Rowan of the dangerous, uncontrollable nature of magic. Sabina Jafri’s lighting is particularly effective for this sequence. Conboy delivers one of the best vocal performances with deliberate, seamless phrasing and a bit of vibrato.
Sharv Dave has orchestrated Lee’s music for piano (finely played by Frank Lu) and percussion (crisply performed by AJ Comsti). The musical direction is by Giao Vu Dinh, with assistance from Dave.
As Hornyak and Lee prepare to take their promising musical to the next level, they might consider ways to tighten it. The performance attended by this writer ran at least three hours, which is a bit long. Also, attention needs to be paid to the way the performers’ voices sit with the music; occasionally it sounded as though actors’ vocal ranges were being somewhat uncomfortably stretched.
That said, there is much potential here. The writers have a clear vision, and they know how to use songs to advance the plot and define the engaging characters. There are some clever, witty lyrics that, generally, are well served by the music. The actors obviously enjoy the material; their chemistry and energy are palpable. It will be exciting to see how The Art of Pleasing Princes develops.
For information about upcoming productions by the Princeton University Players, visit pup.princeton.edu.