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The Book from Syracuse

CCM does The Boys from Syracuse with the original George Abbott book -- but, Filichia discovers, Abbott was no Shakespeare. logo

The Boys from Syracuse:
(l to r) Connor Gallagher, Will Ray, and Edwin Henry,
with Nathan Paul Allen, Thad Turner Wilson,
Joseph Medeiros, and Leo Nouhan in the background
(Photo: © Mark Lyons)
This summer, so many of us who attended The Boys from Syracuse at the Roundabout were wondering why the powers that be demanded a new book from Nicky Silver when the original George Abbott book worked just fine; now, I'm wondering if any of us had taken a look at the show since its 1963 Off-Broadway revival. I've just returned from the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, where I encountered Abbott's book for the 1938 Rodgers and Hart score -- and I'm forced to admit that his script isn't the answer, either.

The Boys from Syracuse, you'll remember, is a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. Abbott's book faithfully follows the play, which might not have been such a good idea, given that it's hardly one of the Bard's best. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, arrive in Ephesus, unaware that their long-lost twins, Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus, live there. (So there's twice as much mistaken identity as there is in the usual Shakespearean comedy.) Soon, Dromio of Ephesus sees Antipholus of Syracuse and insists that he come home to his wife Adriana. Antipholus of Syracuse says he's not married and gives this Dromio a beating for playing a practical joke -- but, once he meets the fetching Adriana, he's happy to play along and spend time with her. When Antipholus of Ephesus arrives, Adriana won't let him in because, she says, her husband is already home.

That takes us to Act III, Scene Two in Shakespeare, and the end of Act I in Abbott. There are precious little laughs in both properties, but especially in the musical; here, whenever anyone confronts the wrong Antipholus or Dromio and doesn't get the answer he expects, he says something like, "Don't joke, please!" or "I must be dreaming" or "I must be having a hallucination" or "All right, if that's the way it is," or "What kind of idiot are you?" or even just "What?" before scratching his head, shrugging his shoulders, and moving on. No one asks the questions that a real human being would ask.

Though Act I of The Boys from Syracuse ends with everyone urging Adriana to "Let Antipholus in!" his house and her refusing to, the second act begins with the local ladies of the evening being released from a night in jail. What kind of transition is that? Shakespeare did better: He lets us see that Antipholus of Ephesus, denied entry to his house, went to the local brothel to spend the night. Many critics over the years have made much of Abbott's prudishness, and his attempt to sweep that trip to the whorehouse under the rug might be a good example of it.

Betsy Wolfe, Ashley Brown, and Angel Reda sing
for their supper in The Boys from Syracuse
(Photo: © Mark Lyons)
Act II of the musical introduces us to a goldsmith who has made a chain for Antipholus of Ephesus but inadvertently gives it to Antipholus of Syracuse...and if you've dozed off by now, I understand. But I shouldn't be too tough on Abbott because his work was five full years before the Oklahoma! revolution. I'm not sure if I should be tough on Nicky Silver, either; he did better than Abbott in one scene that doesn't appear in Shakespeare, where it's explained why both pairs of twins are wearing the same clothing. In Abbott, a tailor says he's made two suits for both master and slave while Antipholus says he only ordered one. I would have welcomed an additional line where Antipholus rebutted, "No, you misunderstood me. I meant one suit each for two people" -- but Abbott didn't even take the confusion that far. In Silver, both pairs show up at the tailor's and they all take the same outfit because "this is what everyone's wearing this year."

You know who I wish would write a new book for Boys? Alan Ayckbourn. Granted, on the basis of By Jeeves last season, he doesn't seem to have much of a musical comedy touch. Still, his Relatively Speaking shows that he's awfully good with mistaken identity: a young man goes to what he believes is his girlfriend's father's house, unaware that it's actually her former lover's manse, and Ayckbourn carefully constructs lines that reinforce what each person believes rather than allowing him to see reality. That's exactly what's needed in The Boys from Syracuse.

Nevertheless, Aubrey Berg's CCM production was superb. Berg is the best musical theater director you've never heard of. Year after year, he stages one or two shows at the school, and he often finds a unique spin to put on a property. One of my favorites occurred several years ago when he directed Chuck Ragsdale as Cliff in Cabaret. If you take a look at that musical's history, you'll see that Minnelli and Grey won Oscars while Richardson, Cumming, Rifkin, and even Peg Murray as Frau Kost won Tonys. Even those who've played Fraulein Schneider, Herr Schulz, and Ernst have received nominations -- but actors playing Cliff have never won or been nominated for anything. Things might have been different if Berg's interpretation had ever made it to Broadway or Hollywood, for he presents Cliff as an energetic individual who jauntily throws his scarf around his neck before heading out to the Kit-Kat Club, acting intensely interested in Sally Bowles when he meets her, caressing her leg when she barges in on him and sings "Perfectly Marvelous." This makes sense: Cliff's a writer -- and writers are, after all (I insist), interesting people. Cliff doesn't have to just sit there and go homina-homina-homina as Sally vamps him, the way he does in every other production. He can match her lust and only later discover that lust is not enough to sustain a relationship.

Aubrey Berg
Though The Boys from Syracuse turned out to be no masterpiece, Berg was wise to offer his students the chance to do a full-fledged musical comedy -- a style which, as you may have noticed, is again popular on Broadway. His production was so slick that I felt as if I'd been in the theater for a few moments rather than hours. Of course, he did have on hand talent he had hand-picked from high schools all over the country. Plenty of Broadway shows have a CCM'er on hand: Michele Pawk in Hollywood Arms; Shoshana Bean in Hairspray; Jessica Boevers, Justin Bohon and Aaron Lazar in Oklahoma!; Jason Patrick Sands in The Producers; Lauren Kennedy in Les Misérables; etc. And, uptown, Faith Prince is in A Man of No Importance, which has music by CCM grad Stephen Flaherty.

Years from now, you may recognize Will Ray (Antipholus of Ephesus), who has all the butch qualities to become a staunch leading man of musical theater, or Denis Lambert (Antipholus of Syracuse), one of the finest song-and-dance men I've seen in a long time. Ashley Brown (Adriana), Angel Reda (Luciana, her sister), and Betsy Wolfe (Luce) gave "Sing for Your Supper" the most heavenly rendition I've ever heard.

Then there were the Dromios. Finally, after years of seeing productions of The Comedy of Errors where these two are supposed to be identical to the other and looked nothing alike, I saw two guys who resembled one another to the point where I got them confused. Lord knows, Brian Sears was extraordinary as Dromio of Ephesus, rolling around the stage and doing all the physical shtick that is required. But extra credit has to go to Eric Daniel Santagata, who injured himself during a dress rehearsal, breaking one rib and two front teeth. Some cynics might suggest that Berg should then have made Sears break his rib and teeth to resemble the wounded Santagata, but no; he took the kid to be repaired. And, in the very best show-must-go-on tradition, there was Santagata back in action, getting slapped and smacked about by half the population of Ephesus without even wincing.

Yup, that's the type of performer they grow at the University of Cincinnati-Conservatory of Music. They'll get through any hazard they need to -- including George Abbott's book forThe Boys from Syracuse.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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