`Sullivan & Gilbert' needs more zest. Witty script, strong acting, and G&S music do not yet a hit make

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At stage right sits mustachioed, gruff Fritz Weaver, playing the part of William S. Gilbert, the word-producing half of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan operetta team. He is sputtering, barking, grumbling, and at times even shouting (in a genteel Victorian way, of course) about what is wrong with the G&S performance he's directing at the Savoy Theatre. It is opening night and double jeopardy: not just the first curtain but a command performance; the Queen herself will be in the audience. This scene from playwright Ken Ludwig's ambitious new play, ``Sullivan & Gilbert,'' which has just opened at Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, is a prophetic one. It turns out that what this play really needs is its own Gilbert, someone who will say ``No, no, no!'', someone who will yank, as ruthlessly as at crabgrass, the lines and scenes that don't yet work, until he's satisfied.

Mr. Ludwig's biographical play with music focuses on the lives of the celebrated collaborators: the blustery, quick-tempered Gilbert and the mild, socially adept Sir Arthur Sullivan, who was knighted long before Gilbert. During their tumultous 25-year collaboration, they wrote 14 comic operettas.

This is at least the 10th bioscript written about them, ranging from Oscar Hammerstein II's 1938 ``Knights of Song'' to the more familiar 1963 British film ``The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan,'' which starred Robert Morley and Maurice Evans.

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This play has much going for it, beginning with an often witty script by Ludwig, the Washington lawyer whose musical ``Lend Me a Tenor'' was produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber in London and nominated for an Olivier Award as comedy of the year a few years ago.

When Gilbert & Sullivan's partner, Richard D'Oyly Carte (Graham Harley), huffs at Gilbert ``I am the producer, Gilbert snaps, ``Just imagine what you'd be if you had some talent.''

The play has a bluff, hearty performance by Weaver as Gilbert and a paler, fey performance by Noel Harrison as Sullivan. There is also a delightful bit of hilarity by Edward Duke, who plays Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, as an amiable but royal twit debuting on stage. In an uneven cast, Kate Trooter as Gilbert's wife Kitty, Christina James as Rosina Brandram, and Donna English as Sullivan's fianc'ee, Violet Russell, stand out.

And, of course, the play leans on an unimpeachable score: G&S's own music from hits like ``The Mikado,'' ``The Pirates of Penzance'' and ``H.M.S. Pinafore.''

Unfortunately, at this point these pluses are not enough to make ``Sullivan & Gilbert'' a successful production. Director Leon Major has not caught the gaiety of Gilbert and Sullivan's hits nor their crisp satire. This production too often sags where it should soar. The G&S favorites are often staged with too skimpy a cast or unconvincing backdrops. The main set, by Phillip Silver, is dreary.

The play now begins on a dismal, darkened stage with just Gilbert and Sullivan, facing away from the audience, reading letters aloud to each other. Boring. The audience is alienated until a few minutes later, when the lights come up and we can see the pair in their Victorian digs calling each other on that new contraption, the telephone. Why not telescope the opening dialogue into a longer phone call and use it as the opening scene?

Paradoxically, the final scene, the finale from ``the Mikado,'' is so handsomely and merrily done you wonder why it didn't come earlier and why the other musical numbers aren't up to it. However, an enthusiastic opening night audience shouted bravos at the final curtain for this show, which had appeared earlier this year at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and in Toronto. It was produced by the National Arts Centre of Canada, Gemstone Productions, and the Kennedy Center.

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