‘Boys from Syracuse’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company

November 6, 2011

Long before an actor blurted out “Shakespeare!” from the stage of Harman Hall, we fully understood why a Washington theater company that bears the Bard’s name would give us a sweet concert version of the Rodgers and Hart musical “The Boys From Syracuse.”

Taking its plot and characters from Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” the show was Shakespeare Theatre Company’s inaugural attempt at replicating, with an Elizabethan wink, New York’s highly successful and widely imitated Encores! concert series, which regularly blows the dust off vintage (and sometimes not-so-vintage) musicals.

Not much can be done by anyone — not director Alan Paul, his supple-voiced cast or even the noted narrative handyman David Ives — to fix what ails the moss-covered wisecracks of George Abbott’s 1938 book for the show. Wow, is it ever amok with bygone sassiness. But there’s always that score, one that melts in the right singers’ mouths. And employing the likes of Anastasia Barzee, Leslie Kritzer, Anderson Davis, Alexander Gemignani, Ben Davis and the evening’s most revelatory performer, Betsy Wolfe, certainly permitted “Falling in Love with Love” and “Sing for Your Supper” and “Oh Diogenes” to go down smoothly.

The company offered five weekend performances, ending Sunday, with — a la Encores! — a 19-member orchestra, perched on the Harman stage and elegantly handled by conductor George Fulginiti-Shakar and sound designer David Budries.

The second in the series, a 1971 rock-opera version of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” runs on the weekend of Jan. 27. The program is of a piece with Shakespeare Theatre’s desire to broaden its range, the other main component being the importing of important plays and musicals that otherwise might pass the District by, such as “Black Watch” and “Fela!”

The new venture, then, feels like a bright, light parallel route on this theater’s natural atlas, and it could be a satisfying ongoing addition, provided there are enough musicals inspired by Shakespeare that are suited to the format. Is there a real need, though, for this company to do its own “West Side Story”? Hmm. Other usual suspects, such as “Kiss Me, Kate,” might be fun (even if artistic director Michael Kahn is on record as disliking “Kate’s” book). It might even be useful down the road to imagine the company, in collaboration with, say, Signature Theatre, coming up with a musical adaptation all its own.

Your own thoughts might have been set to wandering by director Paul’s easy-listening treatment, not only during the nicely satiny numbers but also during the all-too-tranquilizing dialogue scenes. Ives’s version retains the smart-aleck banter and a bit of the vaudeville-style slapstick from the period in which “Boys” came to life; a running gag, not so funny anymore, has the suave Antipholus twins (Anderson Davis and Ben Davis) punishing the identical twin Dromio sidekicks (Michael McGrath and Adam Heller) by slapping them upside the head. The smattering of audience chortles at the courtesan jokes was another leading indicator that the script isn’t ageless, just aged.

The actors performed in costume amid a few scattered props, with scripts in hand. (Once you settled in, they were no longer a distraction.) And by the time Kritzer’s Luce sang “What Can You Do With a Man?” with McGrath’s sad sack Dromio of Ephesus, the charms of Richard Rodgers’s melodies and Lorenz Hart’s lyrics became the production’s hegemonic power.

The farce closely parrots Shakespeare’s own plotting. Antipholus of Syracuse (Anderson Davis) and Dromio of Syracuse (Heller) wander into Ephesus, where their long-lost identical twins reside, and the mix-ups multiply until the wrong Dromio and Antipholus end up in bed with Kritzer’s Midler-like Luce and Barzee’s high-toned Adriana. A problem for actors is how seriously to commit to the rampant silliness; Paul enforced a suitably breezy approach, which to a limited degree mitigated the staleness.

From the musicians to the actors, the Shakespeare company went first class. The Antipholuses and Dromios bore enough physical resemblance to one another to sustain the joke, and the voices across the board added a decided Broadway luster. Kritzer was a pleasingly feisty Luce; Gemignani made a standout of the role of the police sergeant; and Barzee conjured a beguiling Adriana.

It was, however, in a luscious rendition of “This Can’t Be Love,” sung by Anderson Davis and Wolfe, as Adriana’s sister Luciana, that the evening struck a most enchanting chord. Those two kids are going places. And maybe, just maybe, with this kind of consistency in casting and musicianship, the company’s tuneful ambitions will continue to be Shakespeare-compatible.

The Boys From Syracuse

Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, book by George Abbott. Concert adaptation by David Ives. Directed by Alan Paul. Music direction, George Fulginiti-Shakar; choreography, Karma Camp; lighting, Nancy Schertler; costumes, Tracy Christensen; set, James Noone; sound, David Budries. With John Horton, Helen Carey, Nehal Joshi, Tim Rogan, Natascia Diaz, Matt Pearson, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Michael Nansel. Closed Sunday.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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