John Kuntz and Steven Barkhimer in Scapin(Photo © Jeffrey Dunn)
John Kuntz and Steven Barkhimer in Scapin
(Photo © Jeffrey Dunn)
It must have seemed like a brilliant idea: Convene a bunch of Boston's top comic actors to modernize and musicalize Molière's 1671 romp centered on the machinations of the trickster servant Scapin. But despite feeble stabs at topicality ("mad cowboy disease"), this rendition of Scapin -- transposed to Texas -- is incohesive and has no cutting edge. Instead of evoking commedia d'arte, it seems to trace its antecedents only as far back as vaudeville.

Conceiver-adapter-lyricist Rick Lombardo, the New Repertory Theatre's artistic director, has approached the task with glee. He admitted in a Boston Herald interview that it only took him a week to cobble together a script, and it shows. For the most part, Haddon Kime's music is similarly slapdash: borrowing from vernaculars as diverse as country and rap, the eclectic numbers sound undeveloped and aren't allowed enough time to register in performance.

The production has an undeniable energy. If only it weren't so relentlessly in one's face! John Kuntz, starring as Scapin, is the kind of actor who responds better to the defined limits of a role than to license. Given free rein, his tendency is to cutesify the character with a closed loop of antic shtick, playing up his goofy overbite and assuming coy poses. His singing voice, a Barry White bass, is a pleasant surprise, but his speaking-scheming voice approaches Chipmunk velocity. It's an aural and visual relief to focus on Bates Wilder as Scapin's fellow servant and dummkopf foil Sylvester, who mostly bumbles about in the background except for his shining moment as a rapping gangsta.

As the two greedy fathers who plot to marry off their offspring to the highest paying suitors, Ken Baltin and Steven Barkhimer are saddled with commedia-style false noses -- one porcine, the other vaguely phallic -- that only serve to limit their facial expressivity.

The young lovers, marvelously caparisoned by costume designer Frances Nelson McSherry, are the true high points of the show, even if their names have been inexplicably Italianized. As Leandro, Miguel Cervantes -- whose 2003 turn as Bat Boy earned him an avid local following -- gets to strut about in thigh-high boots that threaten to engulf him. His song "For Love" is too brief a showpiece for his velvet pipes.

The other three juveniles are played by trainees plucked from local MFA programs and they all show great promise. Bonita J. Hamilton as Zerbinetta comes across as irritated (perhaps at finding herself in this sub-par production) but delivers the goods in "Fools and Their Money." As Hyacinthia -- the character's name was evidently changed for the sole purpose of setting up a lame joke, "Hiya, Cynthia!" -- Jennifer Lafleur is an effervescent soubrette with terrific presence and timing and a voice that should take her anywhere she wants to go. As Octavio, here imagined as a sexually ambiguous fop, Bret Carr outpouts Shirley Temple. Tossing his courtier's curls and intoning his signature song, "Boo Hoo," he's simply adorable and he doesn't miss a single comic nuance.

Would that there were more nuances in this production. Scapin, the original, is all about mental giantism masquerading as servile humility. How could you ask for more comic potential? No wonder Molière liked to play the role himself. In rendering this incisive little bagatelle so broadly, Lombardo and Kuntz have done the master a disservice. Had Molière merely dabbled in over-obvious hijinks, his work would have long since been forgotten and therefore not subject to clumsy, flash-in-the-pan adaptations.