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The Los Angeles Times

Friday, September 24, 1999

A Rare View of 'Syracuse'

Reprise! production of the Shakespeare-drawn musical has strong tunes that help cover for a weak libretto.

By MICHAEL PHILLIPS, Times Theater Critic

In between the Rodgers and Hart songs, it's shtick in the mud. Yet when "The Boys From Syracuse" sings for its supper, it sounds like a classic.

If the 1938 musical comedy based on Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" had less of a crick in its back--in its George Abbott libretto, in other words--revivals would pop up all the time. It'd come around at least as frequently as the later, sturdier courtesans 'n' cutups romp, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

But it doesn't. So the Reprise! concert edition of the show, which opened Wednesday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, is a relatively rare bird.

Musical comedy fans should take advantage of this sighting. You can forgive a lot of lame patter if the trade-off is "Falling in Love With Love." Or "This Can't Be Love." Or my reet fave, "Sing for Your Supper," that incomparable swing-era tribute to three-part Grecian harmony. It's my vote (this week, anyway) for world's greatest show tune, sung here by Lea DeLaria, Tia Riebling and--alas, not entirely on pitch--Karen Culliver.

Two years ago New York's Encores! series, on which Reprise! was modeled, fared well with "The Boys From Syracuse." David Ives, author of "All in the Timing," tinkered with the recalcitrant book. The same abridgment is used here. Shorter helps, but the 40th conk-on-the-servant's-head isn't any funnier than the first 39.

The primary conk-ee, Dromio of Syracuse, is played by David Hyde Pierce, frequent Emmy winner for his role as Niles Crane on TV's "Frasier." Dromio doesn't require much singing, just two numbers in Act 2: "He and She," opposite DeLaria, and "Big Brother," a plaintive duet with Dromio's long-lost twin, played well and shamelessly by Jason Graae, with frequent nods to Al Jolson.

The plot goes back to Roman days. Dromio (Hyde Pierce) and his master, Antipholus (Christopher Sieber), arrive in Ephesus from Syracuse. They don't know it, but their respective, long-lost identical twin brothers (Graae and Scott Waara) reside in this hostile city. They're also named Dromio and Antipholus. Everyone mistakes the Dromios and the Antipholi for their counterparts. Various henpecking, sex-starved and easy-virtue ladies fill out the confusion, per late-1930s Broadway convention.

Though a nimble physical comic, Hyde Pierce--this production's big draw--doesn't naturally gravitate toward burlesque-brand low comedy. He's most comfortable with repressed characters tipping around the Abyss of Hysteria. ("Frasier" trades more in high- and medium-comedy than low.) Here, he tends to remain outside the tomfoolery. His instincts are telling him to not push the already pushy "Boys From Syracuse" business any harder than necessary.

Nonetheless, he's a fine stage actor, and a passable singer. (At the Guthrie Theater, among other U.S. stages, he's proved equally adept at Shakespeare, Chekhov, Moliere and Shaw.) Director Arthur Allan Seidelman, responsible for last year's "Of Thee I Sing" for Reprise!, uses Hyde Pierce well, letting him underplay but keeping him and his cohorts moving quickly.

Sieber, a charismatic galoot, fares exceptionally well with Antipholus I, whose songs include "This Can't Be Love" and, also opposite Riebling, "You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea." Sieber knows how to freshen up a running gag, such as being recognized by people he hasn't yet met. He keeps the running gags running on time. And it's fun to see Marian Mercer, as sweetly tetched as ever, glide through the (gender-altered) role of the Sorceress.

DeLaria's the ringer, though, and she knows it. In the recent New York revival of "On the Town," she nearly ate the material alive. Here, with another problematic libretto, she goes easier on things, and it pays off. When she zings into "Sing for Your Supper," her love of that particular vocal style is infectious.

The more-established Encores! series in New York enjoys a big, fat budget and a full-sized orchestra. The still-fledgling Reprise! program does not. No matter how well musical director Peter Matz handles the cut-down charts, the music isn't receiving the treatment it deserves. This show features a 14-piece band, but you want the full orchestral monty with show music this good. Is there an arts philanthropist in the house? Anyone who loves musicals enough to support Reprise! in its ambitions for a fuller representation thereof?

* "The Boys From Syracuse," Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert at UCLA Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, UCLA, Westwood (adjacent parking in UCLA Lot 3; enter on Hilgard, south of Sunset). Wednesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 3. $45-$50. (310) 825-2101. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Will Heermance, Chad Borden, Christa Jackson, Tera Bonilla, Shannon Pritchard, Sierra A.R. Rein, Bart Doerfler, Tyson Sheedy, Daria Somers, Fred Voss: Ensemble

Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Lorenz Hart. Book by George Abbott. Adaptation by David Ives. Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman. Choreographed by Travis Payne. Musical director Peter Matz. Set by Gary Wissmann. Costumes by David R. Zyla. Lighting by Tom Ruzika. Sound by Philip G. Allen. Stage manager Ronn Goswick.

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Copyright © 1999 LA Times.
Posted 10/2/99