Boys From Syracuse
American Airlines Theatre, NY - October 2002
Review by John Kenrick
When you revive a 65 year old musical on Broadway, it makes perfect sense to spruce up the original text and make some changes. When the 1999 Encores concert staging of The Boys From Syracuse earned rave reviews, most agreed that George Abbott's book was still effective, if a bit creaky. So when Roundabout decided to stage a full revival of the show, no one was surprised when playwright Nicky Silver (a darling of the critics who has never written a libretto before) was called in to revise the book. But who figured that Silver would throw out everything except the basic plot, disposing of every ounce of charm the piece ever had? Or that a highly qualified production team would match his script with uniformly clumsy sets, costumes, lighting and staging? Timed to coincide with composer Richard Rodgers 100th birthday, this revival of The Boys From Syracuse winds up being less a tribute than it is an embarrassment.
The story is admittedly time-worn, coming directly from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors. In the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, the bragging, philandering soldier Antipholus and his witless servant Dromio have their lives thrown into chaos when their long-lost identical twin brothers (who happen to go by the same names) sail into town. The visiting Antipholus, good-natured and almost cowardly, winds up being mistaken for his brother even by his brothers wife! By the final curtain, the twins' parents show up to clarify who's who, so all ends more or less happily.
The still-glorious songs of Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart have kept this show on people's minds for three generations. "This Can't Be Love" and "Falling in Love With Love" are just tow of the recognizable title in this delightful score. But director Scott Ellis and his team have seen fit to revamp many numbers, turning solos into duets ("Dear Old Syracuse") and destroying the reliable showstopper "Sing For Your Supper" by throwing the entire ensemble into what was designed to be a swinging trio. And what ever possessed them to throw in a chorus of prostitutes doing tacky burlesque schtick? What idiocy! If Ellis and company did not trust the author's original intentions, why bother doing the show at all?
It is hard for a musical lover like me to speak unkindly of Mr. Ellis, who has directed so many fine productions over the last decade. But this production is just the latest proof of the old truism that it takes people of great talent to make great mistakes. The same certainly applies to designers Thomas Lynch (sets), Martin Pakledinaz and Donald Holder (lighting) gifted men who have turned out ugly work this time around. If the intention was to look cartoonish, the final effect merely looks garish and awkward. Amid all this clunkiness, choreographer Rob Ashford never had much of a chance to do much.
Neither does a remarkably gifted cast. The luscious Erin Dilly could steal any show in town, and does so here with a hilarious performance as Luciana, the sister-in-law of one Antipholus who is wooed by the other. (If that doesn't make much sense, don't worry it makes just as little sense in this staging.) Lauren Mitchell (one of the co-producers of Urinetown) does the most anyone could with the heavily revised role of the neglected wife Adriana, and Toni DiBuono has just the right note of Mermanesque comedy as the bullying housemaid Luce.
Jonathan Dokuchitz is disarming as the likeable Antipholus, offering one of the most delightful baritone voices Broadway has heard in several seasons. As his oafish twin, Tom Hewitt has far too little opportunity to show his talents an imbalance the new book magnifies painfully. Musical theater veterans Chip Zien and Lee Wilkoff are both superb as the twin servants, making every comic moment count and adding a welcome touch of pathos with the little-known "Big Brother." Sitcom favorite Jackee Harry pumps laughs into the new (and utterly unnecessary) character of a whorehouse madam. An even bigger sitcom star makes a surprise appearance in the final scene a desperate and embarassing attempt to give a final kick to production that spends the entire night dead on arrival.
So a suggestion to anyone thinking of doing The Boys From Syracuse in college or regional productions stick to the original George Abbott book, and you'll have a charming period musical comedy.