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‘Romantics Anonymous’ sweetly navigates love amid the age of anxiety

Chicago Shakespeare Theater offers a live stream from Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre of a fully staged production.

 Angélique (Carly Bawden) and Jean-René (Marc Antolin) in Wise Children’s Romantics Anonymous, directed by Emma Rice, in a WorldStage at Chicago Shakespeare Theater event livestreamed irect from the UK’s Bristol Old Vic.
Angélique (Carly Bawden) and Jean-René (Marc Antolin) share a romantic moment in Wise Children’s “Romantics Anonymous,” in a WorldStage at Chicago Shakespeare Theater event livestreamed direct from the UK’s Bristol Old Vic.
Steve Tanner

Crippling fear and a relentless sense of ever-looming dread. That’s the default emotional state of Angélique and Jean-René, the quirky-cute romantic leads of “Romantics Anonymous,” a live-stream staging from Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre. The Wise Children production directed by Emma Rice, is available through Sept. 26 as part of Chicago Shakespeare’s (reconnoitered because COVID-19) WorldStage programming.

The 2010 Belgian/French film that inspired the stage musical was thick with whimsy and soft-focus romance. Rice keeps that lighthearted aesthetic intact. But where 2010’s “Les Émotifs Anonymes” skirted the edges of cloying, this version, (book by Rice, lyrics by Christopher Dimond, music by Michael Kooman), is emphatically a rom-com for the age of anxiety.

A note about the streaming process: You’ll be watching a live show, not a pre-taped one, along with ticket holders from Wales, New Zealand and Singapore, among other places. Watching on a screen is no substitute for being in a theater packed with hundreds of people whose endorphins are all collectively firing. Still, the excitement of watching a live show remains intact, more or less. The production’s film and sound crew clearly know their business.

The plot centers on Angélique (Carly Bawden), a brilliant chocolatier whose life has been severely restricted by panic so extreme she often goes mute when people look at her, and faints when they speak to her. Her fears seemed more comedic than not a decade ago when the movie dropped. Now? Angelique’s flailing struggle to keep from “drowning” in social isolation is relatable even when it veers toward slap-sticky.

It’s obvious early on that Angélique has a soulmate in her equally emotionally damaged boss Jean-René (Marc Antolin). But where the film was as sweet as a box of drugstore chocolates, “Romantics Anonymous” is shadowed by a sharp-edged undercurrent of threatening despair.

Amid a score filled with chipper songs about chocolate, and dialogue rich with lightly ironic rom-com tropes, Rice ensures that the struggles of Angélique and Jean-René remain grounded. That’s no mean feat in a love story stuffed with candy. But chocolate, as Angelique explains, is defined not by sweetness but by degrees of bitterness. Remove the bitter, and you’re left with gloopy treacle. The same could be said for musical comedies. Rice gets the recipe right.

Carly Bawden (center) and the company of Wise Children’s “Romantics Anonymous,” directed by Emma Rice.
Carly Bawden (center) and the company of Wise Children’s “Romantics Anonymous,” directed by Emma Rice.
Steve Tanner

The crew and nine-person cast have quarantined together in a “bubble” for months, which means they’re able to do the show without social distancing. There is actual hugging and kissing. There is face-to-face belting. Both seem ever-so-slightly miraculous.

Etta Murfitt’s choreography includes swirling waltzes, perky kicklines and other joyfully connective dances. Musical director Tom Brady gets captivating sound from the cast and his four-person chamber orchestra.

Rice’s ensemble is versatile and nimble. But for Bawden and Antolin, everyone is double- or triple-cast, with several actors playing male and female supporting roles. Among the standouts is Sandra Marvin as Angélique’s lusty mother, Brigitte. One of the best scenes in the production comes when Brigitte sets her daughter straight after Angélique announces that she won’t return to her job because it’s too emotionally difficult. Brigitte has words for anyone who would give up a solid career because they are stuck in their feelings. Her no-nonsense, get-your-act-together-and-muddle-through-like-everybody-else speech is spot-on, as is Brigitte’s obvious love for her daughter.

As Angélique, Bawden keeps the clichés at bay, Adorably vulnerable ingenues date back to Shakespeare, and Angélique fits that mold as neatly as the chocolates she creates. But Bawden keeps her real, making her awkwardness sometimes cringingly realistic. As Jean-René, Antolin has similar challenges. Decked out in a loud sweater vest, clashing bowtie and thick eyeglasses, he’s the cartoon embodiment of eternal nerditude.

But like Bawden, he finds the character in the caricature. He and Bawden have fabulous chemistry, and when the two join hands for a good, old-fashioned Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire-style song-and-dance duet (both fabled stars figure in the lyrics), you’ll be rooting for them despite the fact that he’s her boss and therefore should not be romancing his subordinate.

Original designer Lez Brotherston’s lovely, minimalist set translates well to streaming, and Malcolm Rippeth’s twinkling lighting design nicely evoke Paris, City of Light without being heavy-handed.

“Romantics Anonymous” isn’t as satisfying as live theater. But the production shows that the art form can still thrive, even when it can’t be produced for a traditionally gathered audience. It also is offers hope to those struggling to overcome debilitating fear. Angelique talks often about feeling as if she is drowning in her anxiety. That’s undeniably relatable right now, and it makes her eventual triumph all the more delectable.

NOTE: The production’s final two streams are 1:30 p.m. Sept. 25 and 3 p.m. Sept. 26.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.