Usually, I am not one for concert opera or musicals, but the concert-style staging this weekend of Boys from Syracuse by Rodgers and Hart at the Shakespeare Theatre Company is a delight. The pre-production materials all announced that this would be a scripts-in-hand event, but we the audience, like most of the performers on stage, soon forgot they were carrying anything. In fact, the lack of behemoth sets and lots of busy staging sets this little gem free to put the emphasis where it belongs – on the music.
For any lover of Rodgers and Hart tuneful songs, the show is packed with favorites like “Falling in Love with Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.” The capable ensemble, drawn mostly from New York, delivers the songs true to the vocal style of the period, without gimmicks. And there is a lot of music. It’s hard to believe the cast pulled all this off in nine days of rehearsal. The tight and accomplished bunch must have been meeting secretly behind a deli counter somewhere midtown Manhattan.
Anastasia Barzee as Adriana and Betsy Wolfe as her sister, Luciana, stand out in the women’s lilting number, “Falling in Love with Love.” Anderson Davis joins Wolfe in two super love duets, “This Can’t Be Love” and “You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea,” and both find fun and poignancy in their strange, seemingly star-crossed courtship. Leslie Kritzer is a knock out Broadway songstress and comedienne and provides punch to the wry wailing on men with Michael McGrath in “What Can You do with a Man?” and then with Adam Heller in “He and She.” By the time you get to “Sing for Your Supper” in Act II, it’s a musical love feast. This number, sung by Barzee, Wolfe and Kritzer with those Andrews sisters’ tight harmonies, nearly brings the house down. Give us an encore, folks.
The orchestra, a nineteen-piece band deftly led by Music Director and Conductor George Fulginiti-Shakar, is not only on stage but center stage and all but steals the show. Together the players create a fresh and exuberant sound, rolling out one delicious number after another. Saturday night, the musicians so enjoyed the freshness of the singer/actor performances that it was infectious. I loved how the performers found moments to interact with the musicians. Fulginiti-Shakar has created a hybrid score taken mostly from the 1965 revival but borrows also from the 1938 original production to add robustness and achieve a big band sound. (Oh, if only more brass!) He and his orchestra showed they really got that swing.
Last season, the company co-produced the very accomplished Candide (breaking all records), with the Goodman Theatre from Chicago. This time, Artistic Director Michael Kahn is dipping his big toe into musical waters and, for this first in the series, the Bard’s Broadway, has chosen the popular fare of Rodgers and Hart. Is he testing for a full-scale production, perhaps following the recent trend set by Arena Stage, which pulled out an American musical chestnut and reinvented a box office hit in its acclaimed Oklahoma!? One wonders if he is unsure whether such a venture is highbrow enough for his theatre, so the PR-speak gets repeated with both Kahn and show director Alan Paul saying, “We are celebrating Shakespeare’s influence on American musical theatre, bringing musicals inspired by Shakespeare to the company stage.”
Adapted from one of the bard’s lesser known plays, The Comedy of Errors, the story is a case of mistaken identities, twins separated at birth or thereabouts. Two masters with two servants, also twins, survive a shipwreck as children. (Father then renames the only child he thinks has survived, Antipholus, after the lost twin, and likewise the remaining manservant Dromio after Dromio-the-Drowned.) Years later, the once lost Antipholus of Syracuse shows up at Ephesus, and consternation grows as master and servant are told they have acquired suits, friends, and even wives in this strange land. Both sets of twins eventually discover they have been unwittingly swapping lives with their brothers, and all are reunited but not until quite a lot of fun and mischief have occurred.
Truthfully, it’s not much of a script, either in the bard’s original or the musical’s book. But, as an actor jokey-aside says, in thick New Yorkese, “Hey, it’s Shakespeah!” The show’s got none of the soul searching of American character that would follow at the end of the war or the serious integration of plot you find with such later musicals as Oklahoma! But Boys from Syracuse was adapted and first produced in 1938, and Broadway and Hollywood were still serving up great tunes and upbeat stories to make us forget about the big crash and the economic downturn that followed. Sound familiar?
The show is all a lighthearted, big bubble of fun. Even the policemen and hookers get to croon and spoon innocently in a morning after a “Ladies of the Evening” number. Indeed, it’s a vaudevillian pie. Director Paul has rightfully chosen to stage a lot of the show with the feel of a series of acts in front of the curtain.
Terrific at this comedic style are the two Dromios, Adam Heller and Michael McGrath. They ground the plot twists and turns and both bound around the stage with total enthusiasm, then turn deadpan to deliver side-splitting asides. Ben Davis starchily plays the near-cuckolded brother, Anderson Davis’ twin Antipholus. (Yes, if you’re confused reading of the two Davis boys playing twins, both called Antipholus, you’re just got the joke of the evening.) When the Antipholus of Ephesus gets waylaid by the police, you’ve never seen a group having such a ball. These officers behave like overgrown boy scouts, and end up dancing Broadway “footies” together as they arrest local boy Antipholus. This seemingly impromptu male chorus delivered a great sound throughout the show but never more so than in this number with lines like “Come with me, be our guest …in this house of rest” then exit stage right as they cart the fellow off to jail.
I hope the Boys from Syracuse event will serve as an appetizer and enable the show to come back for a full-scale run. Audiences should have a longer opportunity to catch these singer-actors and hear these wonderful songs so strongly performed. If this were indeed meant as something of a backer’s audition, I’d take this opportunity to throw in my suggestions for when the show is remounted. Keep the orchestra on stage and the production scaled down so the play can stay frothy. Let the singer-actors keep on discovering the interactions between performers and orchestra members. Pull out more of the comedy in vaudevillian style. And give the limp, predictable choreography a fresh lift.
Those out there who missed out on the event will get another chance later this winter when The Shakespeare Theatre Company serves up another celebration of the Bard’s Broadway with the rock opera Two Gentleman of Verona. Like the guy tells us in this show, “If it’s good enough for Shakespeah, it’s good enough for us.”
The Boys from Syracuse has closed.
Running Time: Two hours with one fifteen-minute intermission
The Boys from Syracuse
Music by Richard Rodgers . Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Book by George Abbott adapted by David Ives
Directed by Alan Paul
Musical Direction by George Fulginiti-Shakar
Produced by The Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith