How to spruce up a veteran musical: Shift the action to an unlikely locale; move the time period forward or back; try a cast of a different color ...
The Olney Theatre used all three of these tried-and-true tactics on its revival of "The Boys From Syracuse" (itself a 1938 revamping of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors"), setting the show in a candy-colored, circa-1920s Harlem, populated with black performers attempting vaudeville shtick.
But instead of reinvigorating a classic, the Olney's experiment has turned out "Bubbling Brown Boys From Syracuse," an uneven evening of loud acting and singing.
The giddy George Abbott-Rodgers & Hart collaboration was the first Broadway musical to be based on a Shakespeare play (the same play later inspired the short-lived 1981 musical "Oh, Brother!," set near the Persian Gulf). They left the preposterous plot largely the same: While on a visit to the unfriendly city of Ephesus, two boys from small-town Syracuse, Antipholus and his servant Dromio, encounter their long-lost twins -- who are also named Antipholus and Dromio in order to further confuse the plot.
The presence of the look-alikes causes comic confusion with local merchants and police, and soon even the wives of the Ephesians, Adriana and her servant Luce, mistake the out-of-towners for their husbands, resulting in a ribald ruckus.
Olney director Bill Graham Jr. had an undeniably clever idea in transferring his "Boys" to heyday Harlem, splashed with fun-house fluorescent colors by set designer Bill Pierson. But before imposing a superficial style on the piece, it seems the first item of business should have been getting the basics in working order. The show has a clumsy stop-and-start feeling -- a musical number gains some momentum only to have everything shudder to a halt as the song-linking speeches begin.
Musical director and pianist Rob Bowman -- who did a similar number on Gilbert and Sullivan with "Hot Mikado" at Ford's Theatre -- has remodeled Rodgers & Hart's tuneful score with R&B and Dixieland accents, ably performed by an offstage six-piece band. But the music is thinned out by an inadequate speaker system, and the singers too often drift into crowd-pleasing but inappropriate "Dreamgirls" histrionics.
As Adriana, Teresa Burrell looks and sounds sensational delivering old goodies like "Falling in Love With Love" and "Sing for Your Supper," but Burrell has a time convincing us she can act, too. Steven Cates and Lawrence Clayton make a dapper pair of Antipholuses; and though dual Dromios Ray Hatch and Victor Cook have been encouraged to speak in noxious whining voices, they neatly execute a clever mirror-image ballet and exude slapstick energy.
As the indomitable servant Luce, bountiful Barbara Mills makes the most of what would be a minor part in anyone else's production, though she seems overly determined to invoke the vocal and physical presence of Jennifer Holliday. Cinched in and busting out all over, Debra Tidwell resembles a Vargas Girl as the Head Courtesan, and belts out a vibrant "Oh Diogenes!" But Tidwell, like too many other performers in this cast, neglects the comic potential of her character.
The Boys From Syracuse, by George Abbott; music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart. Directed by Bill Graham Jr.; musical arrangements, Rob Bowman; choreography, Carole Lehan; setting, Bill Pierson; lighting, Dan Wagner; costumes, Mary Emilia Lenning. With Robin Baxter, Karen Bishop, Teresa Burrell, Steven Cates, Kirsten Childs, Lawrence Clayton, Victor Cook, Kenneth Daugherty, Luther Fontaine, Lynda Gravatt, Ray Hatch, Dawn Hill, Michael Howell, Michael Leslie, Barbara Mills, David Schuller, Robert Spiotto, Reg Stonestreet, Debra Tidwell, Latrice Wilkinson. At Olney Theatre through June 28.