There was Helen, and then there was Florinda. According to legend, it was Florinda's rape by the Gothic King of Spain that caused the Moors to invade Spain in 711. Now Florinda is the fiery title character of an ambitious new musical, a kind of pseudo-feminist revisionist history that is Gothic in only one sense: It is a romance novel set to music.
"Florinda," now at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, has a book by Dana Broccoli, music by Laurence O'Keefe and lyrics by O'Keefe and John Claflin. It proposes to tell the whole sordid tale of this sultry temptress, which Broccoli has done once before in her 1977 novel, also called "Florinda."
Who was Florinda? According to the singing narrator, when she beckoned, no man could resist. Also, she murdered whomever she kissed. (She kisses two men and she doesn't murder either one of them, but let's move on.) Her reputation is so bad, in fact, that she has lived through "countless centuries" (by my count, 12) as a devil.
Pointing out these small oversights may sound like nit-picking but it isn't. So many details go unattended in "Florinda" that they add up, mocking the show's ambitions, which are numerous. O'Keefe has written a fairly complex score with Middle Eastern motifs, featuring several songs sung in interesting counterpoint. Daniel Ezralow provides some nouveau-mime choreography, and Broccoli creates a wending plot of betrayal and retribution, which is enacted by a large cast, directed by David Galligan. Yet the musical remains a poor man's "Camelot" that never reaches beyond the scope of the romance novel, in which its aesthetic is clearly grounded.
As in many a romance novel, the heroine's story is surrounded by a vague ambience of history. Her impetuous spirit makes men wild for her, and she is awakened to the world through her sexual powers. Readers, or viewers in this case, are invited to envelop themselves in the lure of the story. Disbelief is suspended in a warm blanket of fantasy. But for those not prone to the charms of the genre, disbelief tends to stick around, like lint on a blanket.
Julie Heron sings Florinda well, but she relies too much on the tossing of her hair to convey her character's tempestuous charms. She is unable to make sense of the inconsistencies in her character, which are so many that her impulsive nature cannot explain them all. She is a character who exists according to the needs of the writers and she never for a moment gets free of their strings.
Florinda is shipped from Morocco to Spain, all the while pining for her Moorish lover, who was not acceptable to her father. Longing for her beau Somail (Alec Timerman), Florinda resents being in the king's court until a handsome stranger kisses her one day. Unbeknown to her, he is the king. She brightens up considerably and even turns a cold shoulder to Somail, who suddenly turns up in Spain, only to be killed right outside her castle window, and by the king himself.
Now Florinda discovers who that guy is she's been kissing. Then she really gets angry. Egged on for no apparent reason by the queen's eunuch/servant (the big-voiced Roland Rusinek), she decides to get revenge. She sends word to her father (Edward Evanko) that the king has raped her. Then, she seduces the king (Jeffrey Rockwell).
Now, it's act two, and she's madly in love with the king. She tries to get word to her father that she's in fact well and happy, but he's busy getting together an army to invade Spain. And so the damage has been done.
"Florinda" is an R-rated musical, with a love of lusty details from olden times and florid notions about love and power. It is R-rated but it is not grown-up. As the spurned queen, named Exilona, the vivid Ellen Harvey delivers a stinging reproach to Florinda in a song called "La Cava," or, the Whore. And that is how Spanish legend would have it for countless centuries. Until now. Florinda's creators have reassigned her to the cover of a bodice ripper.
\o7 * "Florinda," UCLA, Freud Playhouse, Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Ends July 23. $20-$25. (310) 825-2101. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.\f7