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The Boys from Syracuse (08/18/2002 - 10/20/2002)


New York Daily News: "Rewrite this comedy? Now that's a tragedy!"

I have four recordings of Rodgers and Hart's "The Boys From Syracuse," one of which (along with Herbert von Karajan's recording of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte") has always been on my list of desert island disks. I mention this to show how much I love the musical's score, which explains why I found the Roundabout's revival so disheartening. The songs, including such standards as "Falling in Love With Love" and "This Can't Be Love," have always had a life because they're irresistible. The 1938 show itself, however, was generally dismissed as the kind of froth that people enjoyed before musicals became more serious when Rodgers took up with Hammerstein for "Oklahoma!" in 1943. Recently, however, we have seen that froth is not so easy to whip up and, starting with "Crazy for You" a decade ago, it's been making a comeback. I had hoped this revival of "Boys" might help speed the process. The book for "Boys" (roughly - very roughly - based on Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors") was originally written by George Abbott, a master of musical comedy construction. Intended as farce, the book's job was to zip you from one bit of musical frivolity to another. My hunch is that the book needed only a little tweaking. Instead, it was remanded to the custody of the dramaturgical twerp Nicky Silver, who has rendered it heavy-handed and inert. There are some clever jokes (about executions as a form of show business) and a lot of lame ones, but the narrative itself lacks drive. More important, games have been played with the score. Several songs from other Rodgers and Hart shows have been interpolated, to no effect. Other songs have been tampered with. All of which falls under the heading of purposeless cleverness. What is especially sad is that the cast is wonderful and could have made this a stellar evening. Toni DiBuono, for example, a "Forbidden Broadway" veteran, would have done a smashing job with "O, Diogenes."

Instead, it has been turned into a trio, and though her companions - Lauren Mitchell and Erin Dilly - are solid performers, it doesn't have the fizzle it would as a solo. The same is true of "Sing for Your Supper," written as a trio, which is now an ensemble number with solos by Jackée Harry. Some songs work well. Chip Zien does a beautifully soulful "Big Brother."

Jonathan Dokuchitz makes "You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea" touching. But most of the score is performed squarely and flatly. The direction is surprisingly lifeless, the sets generic, the choreography merely cute. The costumes, though, are clever. To get an idea of why the show has always claimed the affections of musical theater lovers, listen to the recordings. Recently, Decca issued the superb 1963 London cast recording. The 1997 DRG version has the elegant original orchestrations. My favorite, though, remains the '50s Sony version, with Jack Cassidy, Portia Nelson and Bibi Osterwald.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "Two-Bit Town"

No Rodgers and Hart musical can be half-bad - but the Roundabout Theatre's production of "The Boys From Syracuse," which opened last night, pushes its luck.

The score is ravishing - with those immortal standards "Falling in Love With Love" and "This Can't Be Love," as well as another half-dozen that zing merrily around the memory, such as "Sing for Your Supper."

That's the wonderful part. And then there's the story.

In the right hands, Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors," on which "The Boys" is based, can be really funny. Unfortunately, the right hands rarely pick it up.

I don't really remember the old George Abbott version at all - it was last seen in New York off-Broadway about 40 years ago looking lost - but Nicky Silver's new book seems labored.

The main fault of the evening is Scott Ellis' lethargic staging - which seems to wander around unfocused, like a drunk in search of a punch line.

Rob Ashford's choreography seems an awful waste of good courtesans. The original choreographer, George Balanchine, must be turning over in his heavenly bed.

Then there is the depressant scenery by Thomas Lynch, all pillars and wallpaper designs, enlivened only by Martin Pakledinaz's costumes, which, by the way, are not a waste of good courtesans.

Against all this mediocrity are ranged the score (that we could have guessed, but kind words are also due to the arrangers Don Sebesky and David Krane) and, perhaps surprisingly, many of the cast, particularly the men, and, yes, those courtesans, fighting a gallant rear-guard action.

The other women are not bad but unremarkable. But as the two romantic twins (oh, I forgot to tell you - the story is about two pairs of identical twins separated by a shipwreck, but don't worry about it, Shakespeare certainly didn't) Jonathan Dokuchitz and, especially, Tom Hewitt are excellent, while their twin slaves, Lee Wilkof and Chip Zien, get such laughs as might be gotten.

Nevertheless, there's something wrong when you leave a Rodgers and Hart musical humming the courtesans.

New York Post

New York Times: "No Sobs, No Sorrows, No Sighs"

The boys from the Rat Pack would no doubt have appreciated the girls in ''The Boys From Syracuse.'' A bouquet of long-stemmed courtesans are on conspicuous display in the languid reworking of the Rodgers and Hart classic that opened last night at the American Airlines Theater.

That this gam-flashing chorus's value as a ring-a-ding-ding diversion is fully appreciated is signaled by its being given plenty of stage time. It has even been allotted two numbers (including ''You Took Advantage of Me'') interpolated from other Rodgers and Hart shows. Dancing with clean-cut suggestiveness in pseudo-classical costumes, the courtesans bring to mind not so much ancient Greece, where the musical takes place, as the later Roman revels at Caesar's Palace.

The mathematics have a loopy logic that is unique to show business. In having a thoroughly contemporary dramatist (Nicky Silver) update a 1938 musical inspired by a 16th-century farce (Shakespeare's ''Comedy of Errors'') from the work of a Roman playwright (Plautus) of roughly 2,300 years ago, the creators of this Roundabout Theater Company production have somehow landed in Las Vegas in the mid-1960's.

But don't expect rowdy hedonism from Scott Ellis's revival. Although a gleeful concert production from the Encores! series in 1997 suggested there was still plenty of life left in ''Boys,'' this latest incarnation exudes a listlessness that feels all too appropriate to the energy-sapping days of late summer in the city.

No such inertia, by most accounts, characterized the original staging of ''Boys,'' which had a book by George Abbott, its director, and choreography by George Balanchine. Writing in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson said, ''Someone will have to call out the fire department to dampen down the classical ardors of this hilarious tale.''

Abbott used Shakespeare's story of the comic complications afforded by two sets of identical twins as a showcase for ribaldry and clowning from, among others, the beloved comedian Jimmy Savo. Sandwiched within the burlesque were some of Rodgers and Hart's most enchanting ballads (''This Can't Be Love,'' ''Falling in Love With Love,'' ''The Shortest Day of the Year'') and raciest novelty numbers (''He and She,'' ''Sing for Your Supper'').

These are smoothly sung, for the most part, in the current production. And there are certainly less appealing ways to escape the heat than to listen to them in the coolness of a dark theater. Yet there's little musical zest in the interpretation. Unlike the dancing courtesans, led by the television star Jackée Harry as their Madam and choreographed by Rob Ashford, the show's stars tend to plant themselves downstage and deliver their solos like singing trees.

In between, the performers swap a battery of barbs devised by Mr. Silver, a specialist in neurotic comedy (''Raised in Captivity,'' ''The Food Chain''). Antipholus of Syracuse (Jonathan Dokuchitz), the man who comes to Ephesus in search of his long-lost brother, now has phobias about heights and insects, while his twin, Antipholus of Ephesus (Tom Hewitt, late of ''The Rocky Horror Show'') is an insecure braggart who visits prostitutes only to talk.

The sibling rivalry between the show's love interests, Adriana (Lauren Mitchell) and Luciana (Erin Dilly), has been scaled into Clare Booth Luce-style sniping. And Dromio of Syracuse (Lee Wilkof), servant to Antipholous, has been given a bizarre encounter with a swishy tailor's apprentice (Kirk McDonald) that casts doubt on the sexual proclivities of the other Dromio (Chip Zien), who is married to the lusty Luce (Toni DiBuono).

No one's heart or libido really seems to be in the ensuing erotic confusions, which occur amid sets (by Thomas Lynch) and costumes (by Martin Pakledinaz) that vaguely recall the gladiator movies of the mid-20th century. The invaluable Mr. Wilkof (late of ''Kiss Me, Kate'') and Ms. DiBuono bring a certain bite to ''He and She,'' a droll portrait of a marriage. There was also, at least in the performance I saw, a surprise guest appearance by a popular vintage sitcom star toward the end.

Mr. Silver has provided a couple of sequences in which the ensemble members deliver rapid-fire one-liners in the manner of the old ''Laugh-In'' series. Hence you have Ephesian citizens exchanging rimshot comments in anticipation of a public execution in the language of jaded theatergoers. (''Not another stinking revival,'' one man exclaims, hearing of a previous execution that his friend said he thought he might have seen before.)

The lines are at best mildly funny, but they would definitely be funnier if there were more verve in the speaking of them. There's a persistent feeling in this ''Boys'' that the good citizens of Ephesus would much rather be at the beach.

New York Times

Variety: "The Boys from Syracuse"

A sparkling Rodgers & Hart score is nearly stripped of all its glitter in this unfortunate Roundabout Theater Co. revival of the 1938 musical based on Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors." Scott Ellis' production itself almost earns that epithet, so consistently does it squander the show's potential charms. It's Champagne served in a Dixie cup -- make that flat Champagne.

The Rodgers & Hart musicals are, of course, notably difficult to revive. They date from an era when the books for Broadway shows were often little more than an aggregation of jokes and stock situations slapped together to provide a frame for a series of songs.

"Boys From Syracuse," with its roots in Shakespeare, was probably more sturdily constructed than most, and the book by George Abbott certainly proved durable enough when the musical was revived Off Broadway in 1963. The production ran for more than 500 performances -- more than twice as long as the initial run. A 1997 concert staging in the Encores! series was also much-celebrated.

So you might well wonder why Abbott's book has been jettisoned for the show's first Broadway revival, which stars Jonathan Dokuchitz and Tom Hewitt as long-lost twins Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, and Lee Wilkof and Chip Zien as their twin servants, both named Dromio.

Nicky Silver, a specialist in anxiety-laden comedies that, on occasion, spiral giddily into the realm of farce, was certainly a defensible choice to supply a new book, but the results are peculiar, and only fitfully funny.

An odd note of sexual dysfunction has crept into the proceedings: Now it's not just Dromio of Ephesus, but all the Dromii and Antipholii who have a pathological fear of females. When Hewitt's preening A. of E. visits the bordello of madam Jackee Harry, he never gets down to business, apparently, but spends the evening detailing his martial exploits. And Dokuchitz's A. of S. grows wide-eyed with fear when he suddenly finds the statuesque Adriana of Lauren Mitchell -- his twin's wife -- on his hands.

Some of Silver's comic shtick hits its targets. A scene set in a tailor shop, where the foursome almost collide while whipping in and out of fitting rooms, works up a light farcical froth. But much more is undistinguished or pointless or labored (biggest laugh: a courtesan named Chlamydia).

Abbott's original may have been amply stocked with groaners (Dromio: "Don't you miss home cooking?" Antipholus: "Yes, whenever possible"), but an affectionate groan is better than a yawn.

The savvy Abbott knew the key to keeping this kind of comedy afloat was to toss out a dozen jokes per minute and let the laughs fall where they may; Silver's more determined approach, which seems dictated by a desire to bring more emotional consequence to the romantic plotting, reduces the quotient to a laugh every five minutes.

And it doesn't succeed in providing much more context for the score's more sincere songs, either. "The Shortest Day of the Year" and "You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea," a dreamy pair of romantic ballads, are ably sung by Hewitt (and Mitchell) and Dokuchitz, respectively, but they are still little more than pretty diversions from the comic anarchy that is -- or rather should be -- the show's reigning tone. Act one closes limply with the wistful reprise of "This Can't Be Love"; the raucous "Let Antipholus In" has been axed.

The production suffers from some other misguided musical choices. In an apparent effort to up the glamour quotient, more material has been provided for the courtesans, but the interpolation of "A Lady Must Live" (from 1931's "America's Sweetheart") and "You Took Advantage of Me" (1928's "Present Arms"), both performed by the Vegas-y working girls, sporting the cheesiest of Martin Pakledinaz's otherwise charming costumes, is pointless.

The latter replaces "The Ladies of the Evening," which is at least specific to the show and its particular characters.

But nothing about this bland production is very particular. Ellis and his collaborators have drained the musical of much of its distinctiveness.

The budget seems to have run out when it was time to build Thomas Lynch's sets, for instance. They're mostly just wallpaper and moldings with generic ancient-looking motifs.

And was choreographer Rob Ashford charging by the step? Percolating Rodgers melodies that cry out for movement -- "Falling in Love With Love" is, after all, a waltz -- find the performers sitting stock-still more often than not. (Then again, the contributions Ashford does make -- a brief Ginger & Fred dance for "This Can't Be Love," some generic vamping for "You Took Advantage of Me" -- are uniformly unexciting).

It's even hard to find much to praise in terms of individual performances. The four male leads certainly go through their paces with aplomb, and occasionally something more.

Hewitt has a funny, quizzical look, and Dokuchitz, his endearing moments as the show's resident neurotic. The two Dromios dispatch their duets with the Luce of Toni Dibuono ably.

Erin Dilly, as Adriana's sister Luciana, makes the most vivid impression, singing with a sweet ardency and managing to shape her middling shtick into something resembling a comic performance. But nobody really rises above the serviceable.

Emblematic of the production's utter haplessness is the treatment of "Sing for Your Supper," maybe the score's most delightful song. The jazzy, much-cherished vocal arrangement by Hugh Martin has been abandoned here as part of a desperate effort to inflate the song into a big 11 o'clock number.

Instead of the three female leads, it is now performed by Harry, who's no vocal powerhouse (will the Roundabout's dubious mania for casting TV names never be exhausted?), and those plastic showgirls again. Don Sebesky's orchestrations are generally lovely, but here, he and vocal arranger and music director David Loud force the issue, and the results are overblown.

The show's climax involves the arrival of a guest star playing the twin Antipholuses' long-lost mama. Here it's Georgia Engel, of "Mary Tyler Moore" fame. She doesn't make much of an impression, but it seems somehow fitting to conclude this empty production with a star turn by a performer best known for impersonating an airhead.


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