Songwriters for Elvis, 'Vanya' Take Stage Broadway boasts both pop tunes and Chekhov drama

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Smokey Joe's Cafe

The Songs of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller

At the Virginia Theatre.

Recommended: Default

THE songs of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller represent some of the catchiest and most entertaining pop music ever produced. The duo wrote hits sung by such artists as Elvis Presley, the Drifters, the Coasters, and others, including: ''On Broadway,'' ''Hound Dog,'' ''Jailhouse Rock,'' ''There Goes My Baby,'' ''Stand by Me.'' All these and many others are featured in this new Broadway musical revue.

''We didn't write songs,'' the team has been quoted as saying, ''we wrote records.'' The truth to that is amply demonstrated: Although the lyrics are often engagingly witty, these songs are not theatrical, and their presentation here never coalesces into anything more than a sprightly and eventually wearying procession of numbers. Director Jerry Zaks and musical stager Joey McKneely's revue proves to be too much of a good thing.

An extremely hard-working nine-member cast does its best, and it is not the cast's fault if the song intrepretations pale in comparison to the classic recordings. Standouts include: B. J. Crosby, whose powerful gospel-like voice on ''Fools Fall in Love'' blows the audience out of its seats; DeLee Lively and Brenda Braxton, who sizzle in the number ''Trouble''; and Frederick B. Owens, whose deep voice elicited chuckles of enjoyment from the audience.

McKneely's choreography mixes in just about every style you can imagine, including the requisite homage to Elvis (''Treat Me Nice''). It is often wonderfully inventive, as in the energetic ''Gonna Find Her.'' But too much attention was paid to the staging, and the movement becomes excessive. You long for the times in which the performers just stand and sing.

Uncle Vanya

At the Circle in the Square Theatre.

FOR some unknown reason, there has been a plethora of ''Uncle Vanyas'' lately, with several more to come, including at least two film versions.

The new Broadway revival at the Circle in the Square would hardly make the case for the play's sudden popularity, although it boasts an exceptional cast: Tom Courtenay (his first Broadway appearance since his Tony-nominated stint in ''The Dresser''), Amanda Donohoe (''L.A. Law''), James Fox, and Werner Klemperer.

There is nothing terribly wrong about this production, directed by Braham Murray, but there is not much that is very right either. And mere competency can make for deadly dullness when it comes to Chekhov. Even the gimmicky film ''Vanya on 42nd Street,'' which presents a rehearsal of the play in a dilapidated 42nd Street theater, packs more emotion than this faithful rendering.

Courtenay, an actor born to play pathos, infuses the title role with a fussiness that may be appropriate but is nonetheless distracting. Klemperer blusters his way through the role of Serebryakov in such a way that it makes us wonder how anyone could be taken in by the character's pretensions. And Fox, as Astrov, is so unappealing that the womens' attraction to him is barely credible. Donohoe looks beautiful in Mimi Maxmen's elegant costumes, but never quite achieves sufficient emotional depth. Kate Skinner, playing the woeful and love-starved Sonya, has one of the most emotional speeches in dramatic literature, but she barely makes a mark with it.

Many people cite the ungainly space of the Circle in the Square Theatre as an excuse for the sometimes poor productions, but many triumphs have been registered there. The same complaint was made about the Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont before its current renaissance.

This ''Uncle Vanya'' suffers from mediocrity, not from being staged as theater-in-the-round.

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