Dangerous court intrigue abounds in “The Art of Pleasing Princes”; Princeton University Players Present Staged Reading of New Musical


‘THE ART OF PLEASING PRINCES’: Players from Princeton University presented a staged reading of ‘The Art of Pleasing Princes’, performed April 28-30 at the Whitman Theatre. Directed by Solomon Bergquist, the new musical is set in a fantasy realm plagued by court intrigues and labyrinthine plots. Above, left to right, 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 theatre,” presented a staged reading of a new show written by students, The art of pleasing princesat Whitman College’s Class of 1970 Theater last weekend.

With book and lyrics by Mel Hornyak and Elliot Valentine Lee, and music by Lee, the musical is set in a pseudo-historical fantasy realm – but with a decidedly contemporary point of view and aesthetic. The show subverts tropes of the fantasy genre – and to some extent, musical theatre.

A rogue prince leads an unlikely group of co-conspirators in a plot to assassinate his tyrannical father. Along the way, we discover the secret ambitions and forbidden relationships of the protagonists.

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) kneels at the feet of the monarch’s daughter, Princess Maya Astor (Miel Escamilla), proposing marriage to her. The chart will be revisited later, with a twist.

The opening number (“Your Day in Court”) begins with a waltz skillfully exaggerated in its delicacy. Courtiers profess excitement at the (presumably) impending royal wedding, and stage the all-too-perfect scene: “Every man has his duties; each servant his place; each lady her suitors… our lives are perfect, charmed.

Obviously, this balance is just waiting to be upset. Indeed, as the musical language sheds pastiche, the lyrics describe the scene as a “cautious charade”. The set sings of the ruthless court politics, “You won’t know if you’ve made a mistake here, until you’re the only one kept out of the ball.”

A program note explains that Hornyak wants the show to be a “fun, dramatic and campy fairy tale in which straight people feature constantly, using characters who happen to be queer”. Lee adds that the nature of the writers’ collaboration is reflected in the characters’ journeys. “Creating this during our COVID long distance relationship year allowed us to explore a world in which characters fall in love alike under stressful circumstances, but also allowed us to imagine the happiness of being in one place. as your partner at a time when we couldn’t.

A key protagonist is Louis Rosemont (Delaney Rose), a baronetcy who serves as the king’s (mild-mannered but grumbling) secretary. In “When You’re Little”, Louis expresses his frustration at being “yesterday’s pet”, now that the King holds Jason in such high regard. After a rhythmically slow introduction, the tempo becomes fast to match Louis’ ambitious restlessness. Louis plans to try to win back the king’s favor – by killing Prince Rowan (Lana Gaige), the distant heir who the king is rumored to want dead.

Later, Louis sneaks into the sleeping Rowan’s room to commit the murder, but finds he can’t bring himself to do it. (This plot point recalls Seymour’s awkward inability to kill the sadistic dentist Orin in Little Shop of Horrors.) Rowan wakes up, and slyly offers Louis to join forces; Louis is cunning but lacks Rowan’s nerve of steel.

We learn that Rowan is determined to kill his father because the king murdered Rowan’s mother. Rowan made a previous attempt on the king’s life, in which he enlisted the help of a mage, Maddox Harowitz (Alex Conboy). This attempt failed, landing Maddox in jail. In “Blood Oath”, Rowan lures the reluctant Louis to help him successfully assassinate the “tyrant”.

Gaige delivers a passionate rendition that sells the prince’s fury and dangerous determination. Director
The Staging of the Number by Solomon Bergquist
emphasizes Rowan’s manipulative and controlling nature; Rowan grabs Louis, pulls him closer and holds him back. 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 linefor which costume designer Tanaka Dunbar Ngwara dresses the duo in hats reminiscent of the headwear in the finale of this musical.

Rowan often expresses contempt for his half-sister Maya, whom he considers ready to do anything to serve his ambition. In fact, Maya wants to become queen so she can revoke the laws banning magic, which would allow Maddox to be released from prison. Although Maya is engaged to Jason, as expected, she does not love him, as she is secretly in love with the mage.

Maya visits Maddox in prison. Sound designer Alexis Maze enhances the sequence with dripping water sounds, allowing the audience to imagine an uncomfortably damp cell.

One of the strongest and most rhythmically interesting songs on 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 pulsating segment for Maya and effective counterpoint.

Eventually, Rowan, Maddox (who, unsurprisingly, is tired of the prince), Louis, and Maya form another plan: Jason will be framed for murdering Maya, which would allow the latter to escape palace life and escape. to be with Maddox. To that end, Louis distracts Jason, in a duet titled “Talk About it With You”, by pretending to discuss the intricacies of love. The act ends with the two hands holding each other – but that’s so Louis can steal Jason’s dagger and set the plan in motion to trap him.

When the naive but good-natured Jason is sentenced to death for the imaginary murder, Louis is remorseful and begs a dismissive (and increasingly paranoid) Rowan to beg his father for mercy. The king is never seen or heard on stage, except in the form of a silhouette behind a sheet whose set designer Ellie Makar-Limanov furnishes the stage.

However, we probably don’t have to take the protagonists at their word about the king’s cruel nature. The pardon request is denied, necessitating a bailout that leads to the development of a relationship between Jason and Louis.

Finally, in “Hold Back the Tide”, Maddox reminds an increasingly autocratic and oppressive Rowan of the dangerous and uncontrollable nature of magic. Sabina Jafri’s lighting is particularly effective for this sequence. Conboy delivers one of the best vocal performances with deliberate, even phrasing and a bit of vibrato.

Sharv Dave orchestrated Lee’s music for piano (finely played by Frank Lu) and percussion (lively performed by AJ Comsti). Musical direction is by Giao Vu Dinh, with help from Dave.

As Hornyak and Lee prepare to take their promising musical to the next level, they might consider ways to tighten it up. The performance attended by this writer lasted at least three hours, which is a bit long. In addition, attention must be paid to how the voices of the performers fit with the music; at times, it seemed like the actors’ vocal ranges were somewhat uncomfortably stretched.

That said, there is a lot of potential here. The writers have a clear vision and know how to use the songs to advance the plot and define the endearing characters. There are smart, witty lyrics that are usually 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 expands.

For more information on upcoming Princeton University Players productions, visit pup.princeton.edu.

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