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‘Roman Holiday’ a mostly charming ride through familiar territory

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From left, Drew Gehling, Stephanie Styles, Sara Chase and Jarrod Spector star in the new musical “Roman Holiday.” (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

A handsomely staged musical adaptation of “Roman Holiday” has begun its journey to Broadway at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre.

Directed by Marc Bruni, with energetic choreography by Alex Sanchez, it’s as sweet as tiramisu – Italian for “cheer me up” – and should do just that for fans of Cole Porter, whose trunk was rummaged to make the script sing.

The 1953 film about runaway Princess Anne and a shady journalist who share a day in Rome made a star of Audrey Hepburn and didn’t do Gregory Peck any harm. Living up to those unenviable expectations are Stephanie Styles, last here in the “Newsies” tour, and Drew Gehling, most recently on Broadway in “Waitress.”

They are both charming and capable performers with great voices and enough chemistry to make the inopportune romance sparkle. That’s important because they get serious competition from the beefed-up role of Irving, the marriage-shy photographer, and his matrimonially-motivated inamorata, café singer Francesca.

Jarrod Spector still has that “Jersey Boys” juice of soaring vocals and fuggedaboutit charm, and Sara Chase puts the voom on va-va-va-va, particularly in a knockout Jessica Rabbit homage in the second act, one of a spectacular array of costumes by Catherine Zuber.

Only the constantly adorable Georgia Engel, in an added role as Anne’s aunt, feels lost in the shuffle. It’s the kind of role Hermione Gingold often played, but even she would have been stumped by trite dialogue assigned here.

The stakes have also been lowered for Gehling’s reporter. His major complaint is that he misses New York, so there’s no urgency to his opportunism. There could have been an undercurrent of self-serving manipulation, but Gehling is so likable from the start, there is really no redemption in his choice to not publish his scoop on Anne.

It’s a moment that would have been a great spot for an ethical conflict song. Unfortunately, Porter was not prescient enough to write one before he died, always the risk in a shotgun marriage between a well-known property and a pre-existing song catalog.

That noted, many of the song placements work better than expected. “Easy to Love” (cut from the original “Anything Goes”) feels the most bespoke and “Just One of Those Things” (from “Jubilee” of 1935) provides an apt sentiment for the impossibility of the situation.

Not surprisingly, the diegetically placed songs for Francesca play best, though “Experiment (from 1933’s “Nymph Errant”) provides a stylish solution to the cinematic flow of Anne’s discovery of Rome street life.

It’s a hit and a miss with the other key screen scene, the famous scooter ride. The mechanics and the music mesh nicely, but the projections – including a cartoonish moving icon – disappoint, compared to the otherwise luxurious scenic design by Todd Rosenthal.

All in all, with some judicious cuts and revisions, this could be a New York holiday for the summer tourist crowd.

Roman Holiday
Where: SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 18
Tickets: $55 to $225
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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