With its exuberant mix of comedy and drama, RING ROUND THE MOON is a shining example of the sophisticated European fare that was once a staple of the New York season. Jean Anouilh was one of Europe's most successful mid-century playwrights. The author of more than 30 plays, he is best known in America for The Waltz of the Toreadors, The Lark and Becket (later adapted for film with Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole).
First produced in 1947 in Paris, RING ROUND THE MOON went on to play London in 1950 -- directed by a young Peter Brook -- and then New York in a splendid translation by noted British playwright Christopher Fry, which we used for our new production. Fry dubbed RING ROUND THE MOON "a charade with music" and Francis Poulenc wrote a delightfully witty score for the 1947 premiere, which was present in our version, too. In some ways, the play has the buoyancy of a musical; in fact, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince once considered adapting it before turning to the Bergmann movie Smiles of a Summer Night for their show A Little Night Music.
Inhabited by an array of richly-drawn characters -- most of whom disguise their true identities from others and conceal their genuine emotions from themselves -- RING ROUND THE MOON is an enchanting comic tale which centers on wealthy twin brothers who vie for the heart of the same beautiful young woman, all under the watchful eye of their wise old aunt. To add to the fun, the twins (the scheming Hugo and the diffident Frederic) are played by the same actor.
However, RING ROUND THE MOON is not merely a romantic romp. Beneath the frothy action, darker undercurrents swirl: characters' ambitions are fueled by social-class animosity and motives are tangled by emotional upheavals. The play also has a carefully-crafted artifice which is kept flowing merrily along with abundant coincidences and deftly-orchestrated entrances and exits.
The audience is meant to be drawn into the play's giddy "backstage" design. As machinations unfold offstage, we are witness to behind-the-scenes rivalries as characters vie for control and multiple plot twists ravel and unravel. Indeed, the audience becomes complicit in the proceedings, fully aware that Hugo and Frederic are being portrayed by the same actor.
In this double role of Hugo/Frederic, we were happy to welcome the English star Toby Stephens, who was hailed for his performances in Phedre and Britannicus at BAM. Toby, the son of actors Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, made his Broadway debut among a sparkling cast of stage veterans, including 3-time Tony-winner Irene Worth as his aunt (fellow Tony-winner Marian Seldes played the role at Saturday matinees) and Candy Buckley, Richard Clarke, Frances Conroy, Simon Jones, Haviland Morris, Derek Smith, Francie Swift, Joyce Van Patten and Fritz Weaver.
RING ROUND THE MOON takes place in 1911 in a luxurious, glass-enclosed 'winter garden' in which the characters play and dance under twinkling lights. John Lee Beatty created another of his magical settings, this time in collaboration with costumer John David Ridge and lighting designer Natasha Katz. Choreographer Kathleen Marshall provided the dances.
John David Ridge