Friday, September 24, 1999
By PAUL HODGINS
'The Boys From Syracuse'
When: Through Oct. 3. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Where: UCLA, Freud Playhouse, MacGowan Hall, Westwood
How much: $45-$50
Ticket availability: Limited
Length: Two hours
Suitability: Older children and adults
Call: (310) 825-2101
People were less demanding of their musicals back in the good old days when dancers were hoofers and songs were meant to be belted to the back row.
"The Boys From Syracuse," resurrected in a rousing Reprise! production, is a shining example of that era. This 1938 Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart-George Abbott musical will never be mistaken for a classic, but it's sunny, small-scale, harmlessly amusing and completely devoid of redeeming social value, qualities that have all but vanished from Broadway in this era of big spectacle and bigger messages.
"Syracuse" is based on a Shakespeare play, "The Comedy of Errors," and like "Kiss Me Kate" it uses its highfalutin' source loosely; maybe "cavalierly" is the more appropriate word.
Jason Graae and David Hyde Pierce play twin slaves with identical names, Dromio, serving masters who are also name-sharing twins, Antipholus. Both pairs of twins were separated early in life. One servant-master combo lives in Ephesus, the other in Syracuse. When the Syracusans arrive in Ephesus, things get very confusing, especially when it comes to relations between the two Antipholi and Adriana (Karen Culliver), wife of Antipholus of Ephesus.
Feel a little foggy about that? Imagine how the Dromios feel. Each is constantly confused with the other and beaten by his master (or supposed master). Equally befuddled is Luce (Lea DeLaria), Adriana's servant, who is married to Dromio of Ephesus. Both Dromios are subjected to a second round of whupping when Luce, an unrepentant corporal punisher with a taste for sexual torture, gets riled. (It's bracing to see such displays of cartoonish violence unleashed on stage in this era of political correctness. Yes, things were very different back then ... .)
All is set right in the end, of course, and for material this feather-light, it comes not a moment too soon at the two-hour mark. A final reprise of the immortal "This Can't Be Love" ends the evening on the right note, with a Rodgers and Hart tune thrumming through your head.
Other than the songs (you'll also hear the incomparable "Falling in Love With Love"), the main purpose of remounting a piece of fluff like this is for talented comedians to unleash their talents and have some fun. And director Arthur Allan Seidelman has a dream cast on his hands.
First among them is Pierce. Before "Frasier," this elfin comic genius enjoyed an impressive stage career, and his theater chops are as sharp as ever (not surprising, since "Frasier" is filmed before a live audience). Pierce is a deceptively minimalist comic actor. Like Buster Keaton, he appears to be doing little for his laughs, but it's the result of brilliant timing and absolute mastery of the smallest gesture. Watch how Pierce's jaw clenches as his Dromio tries to conceal mounting sexual excitement, or the awkward way his long arms flap as he runs, as if his upper body doesn't know what his lower body is up to.
It's a wonderful performance, made perfect by Pierce's deadpan, "What, me?" expression. And unlike his co-star Kelsey Grammer, who starred this year in a Reprise! production of "Sweeney Todd," Pierce can hold a tune, more or less.
As the other Dromio, Graae is no comic slouch. He doesn't look much like Pierce (in this farce, that's not a problem), but he shares Pierce's quality of puckish nervousness, which makes it easier for us to buy their twin-ness. A master of the quick mug, Graae knows exactly when to steal a scene, and thankfully, he doesn't abuse his gift.
Apropos scene-stealing, DeLaria is the other reason to see this show. Her Luce is the mouse that roars, roars like a miniature Ethel Merman, in fact. DeLaria uses her petite size as a weapon, shooting across the stage like a small, lethal cannonball, terrorizing everyone, including actors twice her size. And her stentorian voice (uncannily reminiscent of Merman) is a musical-comedy treasure. She milks a bushel of laughs, some of them unexpected, from "What Can You Do With a Man" and "He and She" (an overlooked and brilliant Rodgers-Hart comic masterpiece).
For a series that allows only a brief rehearsal period and the barest of stagings, this production looked sleek and well-planned; for the first time I can remember, there were no scripts in hand. Director Seidelman manages to keep the staging lively and three-dimensional despite the severe restrictions imposed by a large on-stage orchestra. That band, under Reprise! music director Peter Matz, sounded markedly better than in previous productions. Travis Payne's choreography, too, seemed a notch or two more ambitious and clean than the work in past Reprise! shows.
All in all, "The Boys From Syracuse" is an encouraging accomplishment for a series that, in its third year, finally seems to have worked out the many tricks of mounting a short-rehearsal musical production. And with Pierce, its often-risky practice of featuring a TV star pays off handsomely.
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