Cyrano review – Peter Dinklage sings through patchy musical update

Before Peter Dinklage spent eight years in a leather doublet on Game of Thrones, he was a New York theater actor with an aggressive, maximalist, almost clownish style that still allowed for pathos. Which is to say he is perfectly cast in an imperfect Cyrano at the New Group, adapted by his wife, the director Erica Schmidt, with lyrics by Carin Besser and Matt Berninger and music by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner of the National.

Related: Little Shop of Horrors review – gory musical blooms again off-Broadway

The show follows, in more or less contemporary prose, the plot of Edmund de Rostand’s 1897 verse drama about a cadet with an ungainly nose and an elegant epistolary style (Dinklage’s own nose is unremarkable, but he was born with a form of dwarfism, so the jokes about his nose are a kind of displacement). He loves Roxanne (Jasmine Cephas Jones), a childhood friend, but she loves Christian (Blake Jenner), a hunky recruit who can barely master subject-verb agreement. “I’m so stupid it’s shameful,” Christian says. So Cyrano offers to write Roxanne’s love letters for him. With his brains and Christian’s bod, what could go wrong? Everything. At least this version admits that deceiving a woman – into love, bed, marriage – isn’t noble or romantic. It’s weird and it’s sleazy.

Yet the adaptation often stumbles. It’s never clear where or when we are. (The costumes by Tom Broecker borrow about 300 years of fashion.) Schmidt hasn’t settled on a comfortable vernacular and doesn’t try to replicate De Rostand’s wit, so we hear about how brilliant characters are rather than experiencing it. The pacing sprints, then dawdles so that the cast, choreographed by Jeff and Rick Kuperman, can twirl or fling flour into the air. The show doesn’t so much end as screech to a stop.

The songs, gorgeously played, have a melancholy prettiness, but they typically do the same work, excavating an emotional moment for a character. These moments too often sound the same. Roxanne’s I Want song says, “I’d give anything for someone to say / that they can’t live without me and they’ll be there forever.” A few scenes later, Christian sings, “I’d give anything for someone to say to her / that she’s all I can think about and I can’t live without her.” Maybe this is a way of suggesting that Roxanne and Christian are destined for each other, but that’s not what the play argues, so it reads as a failure to write – musically and lyrically – to character. The songs fail to adjust for Dinklage’s woodsmoke baritone, Jenner’s bright tenor, and Cephas Jones’s expressive alto half rose, half thorn. It’s a problem that the most distinctive number, the battlefield anthem Wherever I Fall, is sung by three unnamed characters who never reappear.

Still, if you are a Hamilton fan, it’s fun to see Cephas Jones, the original Peggy (and the original Maria Reynolds), own so many solos. Jenner, a Glee graduate, isn’t asked to do much, but he does it well, even delivering the line “Your hair. It’s light and curly like pasta.” While the New Group often prioritizes star power in their casting, this is, even in an uneven adaptation, a beautiful marriage of actor and role, a chance for Dinklage to swank his anger, his swagger, his intellect and his gravitas, some sword work, too. If there’s a love story at Cyrano’s center, maybe this is it.