Friday, September 24, 1999
One-upping William Shakespeare is not a task for theatrical novices. It takes a true genius - or three of them - to alchemize one of the Bard's works into a bona fide modern classic, especially a play as lame-brained as "The Comedy of Errors." But that's exactly what George Abbott, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart did with their 1938 Broadway hit, "The Boys From Syracuse." How much funnier than Shakespeare's original is this loopy toga party of a musical? How much time have you got?
Alas, you've only got a couple of weeks to catch the wonderfully ditsy "Reprise!" staged concert version of "Boys" that opened Wednesday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. Starring two of L.A.'s funniest men, David Hyde Pierce of TV's "Frasier" and Jason Graae (Houdini in "Ragtime") as the identical twin slaves Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus, this production is smartly cast and beautifully performed, a triple shot of laughing gas.
The plot, of course, is inspired idiocy of the type that Broadway only attempted in its unself-conscious adolescence.
The noble Antipholus of Syracuse (Christopher Sieber) and his servant (Hyde Pierce) arrive in Ephesus and are immediately confused with their respective, separated-at-birth identical twins, Antipholus of Ephesus (Scott Waara) and his servant (Graae). Naturally, this leads to all sorts of amorous complications with Antipholus of Ephesus' wife Adriana (Karen Culliver), her sister Luciana (Tia Riebling) and Dromio of Ephesus' man-eating mate Luce (Lea DeLaria).
Unbeknownst to any of the above, the father of the two Antipholuses (Charlie Dell) is also present in Ephesus and is about to lose his head - literally. But funny things happen on the way to the finale, romantic balance is restored, and all's well that ends with the rousing "This Can't Be Love."
As in Shakespeare's play, it's the working stiffs, not the slightly wooden blue bloods, who get the best lines, and Hyde Pierce and Graae make a fine pair of comic bookends. Hyde Pierce comes on like a suspicious, skinny pit bull with a hangdog countenance, flinching with every drum-syncopated slap to the head he receives. His voice may be froggy, but his acting has plenty of bounce.
Graae, a polished singer, alternates edgy jocularity with mincing indignation. Pleading Dromio's case to his irate wife, he goes down on bended knee and segues perfectly into an Al Jolson voice - one of several witty double anachronisms that crop up in David Ives' stage adaptation, originally created for New York's City Center "Encores!" series.
Yet it's DeLaria, with her compact build, flawless timing and brassy Elaine Stritch-meets-Roseanne Barr voice, who most embodies this production's confident professionalism. With more memorable moves than the Parthenon frieze, she is an absolute delight, particularly in her duets with Hyde Pierce and Graae, and in "Sing for Your Supper," an Andrews Sisters-style three-part harmonic riposte with the honey-voiced Culliver and Riebling.
Under the direction of Arthur Allan Seidelman, who did such a superlative job with last season's "Of Thee I Sing," the production maintains a deft balance between slapstick and sincerity. The emotions sneak up on you in Richard Rodgers' lovely, versatile score, performed by Peter Matz and orchestra with their customary panache.
Why bother brushing up on your Shakespeare when we now have "Reprise!" to goose it up?
What: "Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert" presents "The Boys From Syracuse."
The stars: David Hyde Pierce, Jason Graae, Christopher Sieber, Scott Waara, Karen Culliver, Tia Riebling, Lea DeLaria and Charlie Dell.
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