Charles Dickens to music -- or half of him at least

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Copperfield Based on "David Copperfield," by Charles Dickens. Book, music and lyrics by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn. Directed and choreographed by Rob Iscove. Musical direction and vocal arrangements by Larry Blank.

"Copperfield," at the ANTA Theater, is a bustling, well-sung, and (in most cases) believably acted version of Charles Dickens's rich and teeming autobiographical novel. Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, who collaborated on the book, music, and Lyrics, have sought to do for "David Copperfield" what Lionel Bart's "Oliver!" did for "Oliver Twist." They, too, have halved the little, and they have more or less halfway succeeded.

Even stripped to the requirements of an approximately two-hour Broadway musical, the Dickens plot retains its strong emotional appeal. It tells how the widowed Mrs. Copperfield (Pamela McLernon) marries the tyrannous Mr. Murdstone (Michael Connolly) and how, after her death, young David (Evan Richards) escapes the cruelty of his bullying stepfather. Trudging the 60 miles from London to Dover, David reaches the cottage of his Aunt Betsey Trotwood (Carmen Mathews), who harbors him, notwith-standing her previous imprecations against all boys.

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In the course of growing up to be Copperfield, the aspiring writer (Brian Matthews), David encounters most of the major characters from the Dickens classic. These include the perennially optimistic Wilkins Micawber (George S. Irving) and the odious Uriah Heep (Barrie Ingham). Uriah's evil designs on the hero's friends are foiled only in the nick of time and with the help of a patter chorus, "Villainy Is the Matter." Dora (Mary Mastrantonio), David's short-lived first wife, and Agnes (Leslie Denniston), whose loyalty finally wins his love, are secondary but decorative characters in the Kasha version.

Since "Copperfield" is aimed squarely at the family trade, it should be reported that a preview matinee audience composed largely of high-schoolers seemed to revel in the extravanganza. They cheered when Aunt Betsey gave the Murdstones their deserved comeuppance. The youngsters were obviously delighted with the coup de theatre in the "Here's Book" number, when David suddenly grew to manhood. They applauded the several big dance numbers, and they booed red-headed Uriah heartily.

Whether grown-ups will find so much to be delighted about is another question. The Kasha-Hirschhorn score is pleasant enough but rather too reminiscent of other melodies from earlier musicals. The production designed by Tony Straiges (scenery), John David Ridge (costumes), and Ken Billington (lighting) is expensive-looking and rather attractive but without much style. As director-choreographer, Rob Iscove seems to have demanded a kind of playing that tends toward caricature and, in the case of Uriah, to low-comedy hokum. "A Venetian comedy" by Carlo Goldoni. Directed by Liviu Ciulei.

The nine-year-old Acting Company is winding up its 1980-81 season with a brief stand at the Public/Newman Theater. The itinerant troupe -- drawn from the Juilliard Theater Center and from other major professional training schools --is the official touring company of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. It travels the United States (and last year visited Australia) with a repertory of classic and modern plays. Founded in 1972 by John Houseman and Margot Harley, this changing but stable organization has preserved its entity and identity as a developer of talents and a producing enterprise with a national constituency. At the end of its current Off Broadway engagement the company suspends performances for 3 1/2 months. The 1981-82 tour opens in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on Aug 15 with William Wycherly's Restoration comedy, "The Country Wife." The repertory will also include "Electra/Orestes," "Twelfth Night," and "Il Campiello.

Under the aegis of Joseph Papp, the company launched its three-play New York season will "Il Campiello" ("The Public Square"), Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century farce. First presented in 1756 to coincide with the Carnival of Venice, the play concerns the lives and squabbles and reconciliations of a group of noisy Venetian neighbors. The jolly frolic abounds in Goldoni set pieces, from the chitchat of elderly gossips to the series of intense romances that pursue their frantic course in an around the sometimes snow-swept square.

The plot catalyst is a visiting Count whose intial bafflement turns to delight in these vociferous commonfolk and who falls in love with the beautiful blond daughter of the neighborhood curmudgeon.

The performance staged by Liviu Ciulei grasps not only the boisterousness and broad farcicality of the piece but also responds to its occasional quiet poignancy. What the young company may lack in experience, it makes up for to an agreeable extent with the zest and vigor of its attack. There is a clear sense of both individual identity and ensemble cohesion about the playing. Several cast members already display a flair for this kind of stylized comic theater. Notwith-standing the intermittent intrusion of slangy anachronisms, Richard Nelson's adaptation from Erica Gastellis's literal translation of the five-act original serves the performers well.

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