Matt Cavanaugh as Dorian Grey, left, and Robert Cuccioli as Henry Lords

in the wold premiere of "Dorian" opening Thursday at the Buell Theater.
Stars see bright future for "Dorian"

By John Moore
Denver Post Theater Critic

Sunday, September 15, 2002 - There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, Oscar Wilde writes in his classic 1891 novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray." That is not being talked about. 

Plenty of people are talking about "Dorian." But until the new contemporary musical adaptation receives its world premiere Tuesday at the Buell Theatre, no one really knows exactly what they are talking about.

Creator James J. Mellon has put some distance between Wilde's original Victorian vanity story of an impossibly handsome boy who gives his soul to remain eternally young and his reinvention by moving it to 1980s New Orleans.

Wilde fans are asking what new truths will be revealed amid the Mardi Gras mysticism of the bayou. Musical fans want to know how a colorful Cajun score that incorporates jazz, blues, gospel and popular musical stylings might compare to epics such as "Rent" and "Sunset Boulevard." Special-effects fans want to know how the designers will pull off the intriguing technical challenge of showing Dorian's once-perfect portrait take on the decrepit scars of his depraved behavior.
Those are questions that will have to wait until Tuesday for answers.

About the only sure thing going into Tuesday is the pedigree of the cast that will launch the show in Denver with hopes of ultimately landing on Broadway.

The boy's mentor (and painter, in this adaptation) is played by Robert Cuccioli,
who was the toast of Denver in January 1996 and later of Broadway for playing the mirrored title roles in "Jekyll and Hyde." Matt Cavenaugh, who gets his own shot at a split title character in "Dorian," is one of the brightest young stars on the national theater scene. After "Dorian" closes Sept. 29, he will star in another new musical that is already Broadway-bound. He has landed the John Travolta role in a new adaptation of "Urban Cowboy" that warms up for New York at Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse from Nov. 5-Dec. 1.

"I had a pretty good birthday this year," said Cavenaugh, whose May 31 haul was a little better than a sheet cake. "That's the day I found out I got "Dorian,' and then later that afternoon, a buddy of mine called and said, "Hey check out Playbill Online,' where there was the cast announcement for "Urban Cowboy.' "

Since, half of his larger-than-life face has consumed full-page newspaper ads for "Dorian." It should all be enough to give him at least half of a big head, but so far, it has not.

"Come Dec. 2, I have written down on my calendar, "Now what?' " Cavenaugh said. "Both of these shows have plans to go to New York. One may, one may not. Either of them may not want me. I am just trying to take all that pressure and expectations off myself so I can just focus on this."

Cavenaugh is the third actor to play Dorian Gray since the show began workshop performances in 1999. He follows Max von Essen, who will be starring with Michael Crawford in "Dance of the Vampires" on Broadway beginning Nov. 21. But Cuccioli's considerable name has been attached to the project since the beginning.

"Certainly my notoriety of doing "Jekyll and Hyde' has given me a lot of opportunities around the country because it was such a worldwide phenomenon. But it's not something that I really think about," he said. "I got involved with "Dorian' right after I left "Jekyll and Hyde' because I happened to be in California at the time, and it was something to do. But as I got more involved with it I realized this is quite an interesting project. Not only the role for me, but the whole aspect of it. I liked the music, the book, the story. So I decided to stay with it and be a part of the development process."

With the pressure of defining a role for whomever follows also comes great freedom.

"To know there is no previous performance to fall back on is kind of nice," Cuccioli said. "It's exciting to be hands-on with the development of a new project. Matt and I have a lot to say about our own roles. Music actually gets written just for you. Lines get changed. You rarely get that opportunity in theater. But it is a double-edged sword. Because there is no road map, you kind of question where you're going. You just have to trust the fact that you were hired because of what you might give to these roles."

Musical takes liberties

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" was hardly the first Faustian story ever written, but it is unique in that the only devil staring Dorian in the face appears to emanate from his own essence. In "Dorian," the title character begins as a hopelessly naive Jesuit student whose first, forbidden romance is with a mulatto woman, and the reverberations result in death and despair.

The adaptation takes other liberties with the novel, beyond making Cuccioli's mentor the artist who creates the perfect image of Dorian. In the book, "Dorian" makes his wish to remain forever young straight away. His resulting indifference ultimately leads to his fiancee's demise. But in the musical, it is her death that causes Dorian to make his wish. And he pleads not to be forever young, but simply to feel numb, freed from feeling the pain of his grief and guilt. After the wish is granted, he descends into ruthlessly callous behavior, drug addiction and endless sexual liaisons that are devoid of emotional connections.

If anyone succumbs to the vanity of perfect youth, it is not Dorian but all those around him who are spellbound by him, consumed with having their piece of him.

Before Wilde's novel came to be considered a classic, it was regarded as filth, especially for its erotic (and occasionally homoerotic) subtext, which contributed to his arrest on obscenity charges. But while "Dorian" doesn't skirt those issues, its stars insist that it isn't beholden to them, either.

"This is a contemporary adaptation, and adaptation is the key word there," said Cavenaugh. "We're not necessarily musicalizing the novel. We're taking from the novel, but essentially we are telling more of a love story than that of someone who wants to stay beautiful forever."

"It is a love story on a number of different levels," Cuccioli added. "If it were only a vanity piece, that would not be very appealing to anyone. There is an aspect of holding onto one's youth. There's an aspect of following your heart and your dreams. But it's very multilayered, and to try to pick one kernel and say, "That's what it's about,' would be difficult."

New Orleans state of mind

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" is one of the most-interpreted works of the 20th century, having been adapted for the screen six times even before the advent of talking films. There are at least three recent stage versions. The actors were asked what relevance there is in taking its classic premise and making it a modern-day morality tale set in the American South.

"Oh, no! A test question!" Cavenaugh laughed before being bailed out by his mentor.

"I think making it a contemporary piece makes it more accessible to a modern audience," Cuccioli said. "If they're looking at a piece that takes place in England at the turn of the century, it's very easy to remove yourself from that. It's difficult to connect anything about it with your own ideals or morals.

"And New Orleans has these connotations to it that adds to the mysticism of the story. Setting it there also gives it a flavor musically. You can go in a lot of different directions with the music, and create a more interesting score."

The goal for the Denver run is not to punch an immediate ticket to Broadway, as was the case when "Hairspray" went directly from Seattle to New York.

"I think what we're hoping is to use it as a step in the process," Cuccioli said. "There have been workshops and readings, (but) this is the first staged version of it, and we hope that it's going to be looked at as something that will continue to grow. I hope people will look at it and say, "Great. This is a wonderful production, and it's really solid,' and then we can take that and go even further with it."

Cavenaugh, for his part, doesn't even want to hear the "B" word.

"Yes, it is in the back of my mind that (Broadway) is a very real possibility. But I don't like to say the word. Even when talking with friends I say, "And it might go to New York.' I want to take that pressure off me and just concentrate on this task. So if we put up a good production in Denver, then hopefully we'll have great possibilities of moving it further."

In his preface, Wilde writes, "behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic." Just what form "Dorian" turns out to take remains a question.

"I'm not exactly sure what we're in for," Cavenaugh said.

"Yeah," Cuccioli added, "but I can't wait to find out."

If you go
What: World premiere of a contemporary new musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray"
Who: Conceived and adapted by James Mellon; music and lyrics by Mellon and Scott DeTurk
When: Preview 7 tonight. Opens Tuesday and runs through Sept. 29. Showtimes 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7 p.m. Sundays
Where: Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets.
Tickets: $35-$55, through the Denver Center box office (303-893-4100 or , King Soopers stores or TicketsWest (866-464-2626)

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