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Eric Hartley and Sharry O'Hare in Two By Two
All over America, theaters are celebrating the centennial of the birth of composer Richard Rodgers. A major revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic Oklahoma! is currently gracing Broadway's Gershwin Theatre. In the fall, a newly revised version of the R&H musical Flower Drum Song hits the Great White Way. But Broadway isn't the only place to find works by one of America's greatest musical theater legends. From major institutions to smaller community theaters, everyone is getting into the act, staging Rodgers' better-known works as well as some of his more neglected shows. The Renton Civic Theater, just outside of Seattle, has taken the latter route, presenting Rodgers' 1970 musical Two By Two, which features lyrics by Martin Charnin and a book by Peter Stone.

The show tells the story of Noah and the Ark, but it's neither a reverential recap of the biblical tale nor a satire on religion. Based on Clifford Odets' play The Flowering Peach, Stone's book captures the moral ambiguities inherent in a situation where the rules keep changing and the characters must redefine their relationships to each other and to God. Despite these serious themes, the musical is also very funny. Its creators offer up an anachronistic re-imagination of Noah and his extended family that seems drawn as much from sitcoms as from the Bible.

Eric Hartley, as Noah, drives the Renton Civic Theatre production. The actor has a good sense of comic timing and plays the role with exuberance and conviction. One of his finest moments comes when he argues with his sons during the song "You Have Got to Have a Rudder on the Ark," early in the show. "If God would have wanted a rudder," he speak-sings in an over-enunciated drawl dripping with sarcasm, "Then God would have said 'Make a rudder.'"

Unfortunately, none of the other actors are able to bring their characters to life as fully as Hartley. Timothy Glynn as Jaepeth, Noah's youngest son, has a pleasant singing voice and a lot of energy but does not focus that energy tightly enough to bring out the subtleties of his role. Sharry O'Hare as Noah's wife, Esther, has a solid stage presence but lacks a grounded emotional connection to her husband. A scene in Act Two where she confronts Noah with some of her insecurities about her age--since God has seen fit to make Noah more youthful but left his wife in her advanced years--is appropriately played for laughs but would have been more effective if it also had a touch of sincerity.

Directed by Ann Arends, with musical direction by Jim Fisher, the production successfully brings to life Rodgers' neglected score, even if the performers do not possess the best of voices and have particular difficulty with the harmonies. The impassioned anthem "Something Somewhere," sung by Jaepeth and reprised by Noah, is one of the better tunes, as is the catchy title song. Two By Two may not be as well known as The Sound of Music, Pal Joey or some others Rodgers works, but it is a solid show that deserves a second look.

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