`The Boys from Syracuse' buoyed by Abbott's helpful presence

The Boys from Syracuse Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Lorenz Hart. Book by George Abbott, based on ``The Comedy of Errors,'' by Shakespeare. Great Lakes Theater Festival revival directed by Gerald Freedman. Can a 1930s musical farce pilfered from Shakespeare kindle excitement and generate laughs in the 1980s?

Unquestionably, if the weekend opening at the Ohio Theater here is a good indication - especially when the score includes Rodgers and Hart favorites like ``This Can't Be Love,'' when the script is by Broadway legend George Abbott, and when the 99-year-old author is on hand not only for the opening, where he acknowledged warm applause, but also several weeks earlier to help cast the production and ensure its fidelity to the 1938 original.

Possibly, however, the show's potential for commercial longevity is beside the point anyway, since Gerald Freedman, artistic director of the Great Lakes Theater Festival, acknowledges that his goal in presenting this vaudevillian romp through an ancient, Gotham-flavored Ephesus is ``to document the principles and techniques that helped define American theater'' and give the audience an opportunity to see, ``through [Abbott's] eyes,'' one of his mid-career successes.

Audience appeal and historical interest may not be mutually exclusive though. Mr. Freedman's fascination with America's classic entertainments gave us last year's Broadway revival of ``Arsenic and Old Lace,'' now on a national tour, and this year's revival of ``South Pacific'' at the New York City Opera, both of which he directed.

On May 21, that fascination will also give Clevelanders the much-discussed revival of Abbott's first hit, ``Broadway'' (1926), directed by the author himself.

Abbott, whose theatrical career began in 1913, was, of course, a successful actor, play doctor, playwright, producer, and director when Rodgers and Hart came to him with the idea for a comedy vehicle for Hart's brother, Teddy, and comedian Jimmy Savo adapted from Shakespeare - something that hadn't yet been tried in musical theater.

Though the script was meant to be a three-way collaboration, Rodgers later recalled that Abbott ``had it all finished before we could get started'' and that ``it was so sharp, witty, fast-moving and, in an odd way, so very much in keeping with the bawdy Shakespearean tradition that neither Larry nor I wanted to change a line.''

Rodgers was right about bawdy. TV's ``Moonlighting'' has nothing on the R-rated goings-on that revolve (without explicitness) around the comedy's mistaken identities. For this play boasts not one but two sets of identical twins - both separated from their siblings soon after birth, one pair high-born, the other low-born. To compound the confusion, both servants are named Dromio and both masters Antipholus; to compound the mischief, the pair who live in Ephesus have wives, while their look-alikes from Syracuse do not.

The male leads are Antipholus of Syracuse (Christopher Wells), the handsome wayfarer who has come in search of his long-lost brother, and Antipholus of Ephesus (David Ossian), the rake whose dalliance with a local courtesan provides the opportunity for the mystified but enthralled boys from Syracuse to receive the attentions of wives they didn't know they had.

The female leads are the beautiful but jealous mate of Antipholus, Adriana (K.T. Sullivan); her lovely single sister, Luciana (Donna English), with whom Antipholus S. falls in love; the robust and lusty Luce (Dorothy Stanley), wife of Dromio; and the worldly wise courtesan (Janet Aldrich).

The two Dromios provide not only a viewpoint on the lives of their masters but plenty of physical, often slapstick, comedy, including a demanding mirror-image dance routine choreographed by Donald Saddler and winningly performed by Bruce Adler (Ephesus) and Steve Routman (Syracuse).

The relationships and ironies of the plot fueled the pen of lyricist Hart with a resonant combination of vulnerability and cynicism in the show's hits - ``Falling in Love With Love'' (``Caring too much is such a juvenile fancy/ Learning to trust is just for children in school'') and ``This Can't Be Love'' (``...because I feel so well/ No sobs, no sorrows, no sighs'').

Hart also offers some inventive rhymes in the songs whose task is to propel the plot (``I have searched the isles of Greece/ From my home to far-off Samos, Didn't know your local laws/ I am just an ignoramus'') and lots of faintly naughty lines in ``Sing for Your Supper,'' ``What Can You Do With a Man?'' ``Ladies of the Evening,'' ``He and She,'' and ``Oh, Diogenes.''

The Rodgers score is memorably hummable, even in the songs seldom heard today.

Unfortunately, though, the lyrics for two tuneful ballads - ``The Shortest Day of the Year'' and ``You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea'' - seem to have aged rather gracelessly.

Abbott's script is fast-paced and direct. It's as often the situations as the wordplay that call forth the still-hearty laughter. He has noted, ``I'm often shocked when I go see a stock company production of one of my shows. They've heard it's supposed to be fast, so they say their lines fast. That's not it. What seems fast is really variety. I just try to keep the action interesting throughout. What's not interesting is broadness. My comedy comes from people and characters. The people have to be real to make their predicament real. I direct farce as if it were `Hamlet.'''

Such an approach depends on performances that sparkle. The current production, which appears to be the first major revival since an Off Broadway version in 1963, has much that glistens and some things that don't.

The young cast often portrays these characters with conviction and ingenuity, but the results are uneven - intensity one moment, slackness the next. The singing varies from movingly effective to serviceable to problematic. The well-played orchestrations, pared down for eight instruments from originals scored for an 18-piece band, sound thin in the overtures and interludes but effective in the accompaniments. The handsome sets by John Ezell, skillfully lighted by Martin Aronstein, eventually turn claustrophobic in dance numbers that cry out for more space. Some of these problems will, no doubt, work themselves out as the revival continues in the repertory through June 13.

Director Freedman deserves credit not only for staging this fitting tribute to Abbott but for breathing a rare measure of life into what, without Broadway's trappings and stars, might have been a mere academic exercise or museum piece.

Bruce Manuel is the Monitor's Arts/Leisure editor.

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