The Boys from Syracuse has a book by famed director and Pulitzer Prize playwright George Abbott based on Shakespeare’s knockabout farce, The Comedy of Errors, which was itself an adaptation of a Plautus original, The Twin Menaechmi. The musical sticks closely to the original plot. In a wittily staged, pantomimed prologue complete with miniatures, we discover that Aegeon and Emilia traveling by ship with their twin sons and their twin servants were shipwrecked years ago. One of the sons, Antipholus, and his servant Dromio were rescued by a ship which took them to Ephesus, where they grew up, and Antipholus married the lady-like Adriana and Dromio married her termagant servant Luce. Aegeon and the other brothers (given the same names) were rescued by a ship that took them to Syracuse where they grew up. None of them know what happened to the others who they have not seen all these years.
When the show begins, Aegeon, now an elderly merchant, arrives in Ephesus where a decree makes it illegal for merchants from Syracuse to enter the city. He is arrested and given 24 hours to find someone to pay his fine of 1,000 marks or forfeit his life. Unknown to him, his son, the single Antipholus, and his Dromio, also arrive at Ephesus in search of their brothers on the same day. However as they look so much like their twins, they are mistaken for their married brothers by merchants, townspeople, and the wives, Adriana and Luce, who can’t understand why their “husbands” are so eager to get away from them. In fact, the foreign Antipholus falls in love with his brother’s sister-in-law Luciana, only complicating matters more, as she feels terribly guilty about reciprocating his feelings.
In the meantime, the local Antipholus visiting his mistress, the Courtesan, is awaiting a gold chain that he has ordered for her. However, it has been delivered to the foreign brother who accepted it without paying for it yet. Antipholus of Ephesus is arrested for non-payment by a suit brought by the goldsmith and sends to his wife Adriana for the money to pay for it. When the Syracuseans are seen with the chain, they take refuge in a Temple. The Seeress eventually straightens everything out when the two sets of twins are confronted with each other, and all ends happily when the parents are revealed as well.
Cerullo’s production is as busy and frenetic as one remembers vaudeville stage shows and Marx Brothers movies. Though it is all meticulously worked out, one might feel the actors are all working too hard. In the cause of verisimilitude, the two Dromios are played by identical twins Ian and Matthew Fairlee, and several of the female characters are impersonated by actors who have appeared as drag queens elsewhere in their careers. However, except for the hilarious Adam B. Shapiro as the overbearing, plus-sized Luce who towers over her Dromio, none of the others wear wigs to help with the feminine illusion though they do slink about seductively. The gimmick of the one real woman in the show (Madeline Hamlet who wears a huge smile throughout as the Seeress, Emilia and Fatima) dressed in a t-shirt that states “The Future is Female” grows tiresome. (We know by now that under King Charles II women were finally allowed on the English stage back in the 17th century.)
The cast seems to have been mostly chosen for their comic skills rather than their singing ability. Nevertheless, Josh Walden and Matthew Fairlee as the visiting travelers turn “Dear Old Syracuse” into a delightful soft shoe number complete with straw hats and canes, and Walden has a lovely duet with Darrell Morris, Jr. as Luciana to “This Can’t Be Love (Because I Feel So Well).” Shapiro’s Luce and Ian Fairlee as Dromio of Ephesus have a big success with the witty, “He and She,” a comic specialty number. However, much of the show has been eroticized and there is a “wink wink” feeling to the overall approach.
Many of the actors have chosen one element of their characters making them rather one dimensional: Jonathan Hoover’s Adriana as the passive wronged wife; Matt Dengler as an angry Antipholus of Ephesus (what is he so angry about?), Sam Given as the man-crazy Courtesan; Shavey Brown as a tyrannical Duke, and Jose Luaces as Angelo, the gold merchant with an exaggerated Eastern European accent. Exuding tremendous energy as he runs around the stage exhaustively from one place to another, Walden is quite charming as the visiting Antipholus of Syracuse while he is matched by the Fairlee twins who look so identical it is hard to tell them apart as they are also dressed identically.
The set by Joshua Warner resembles a carnival side show, while Hope Salvan’s color-coordinated costumes are in various styles. Ethan Steimel’s sophisticated lighting changes for each of the musical numbers. As music director and conductor, Evan Rees leads the three piece jazz combo (named “Cupid and The Arrows Band”) on a second level above the stage with the delightfully syncopated score. The choreography by director Cerullo turns several of the songs into production numbers as well as including his “Ladies’ Choice Ballet” which ends the first act. One must assume that George Balanchine’s original choreography was quite different with actual women in the House of the Courtesans sequence.
In fact, this is a Boys from Syracuse unlike any that the original creators imagined back in 1938. While Musicals Tonight! has entered a new era with this full production, this frenetic vaudeville-style musical comedy with men playing all of the roles in a show usually performed differently may not be to everyone’s liking. It remains to be seen.
The Boys from Syracuse (through February 25, 2018)
The Lion Theatre, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.musicalstonight.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission