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THEATER REVIEW 'THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE' : Shades of Plautus : While visually stunning, the UCSB revival of the 1938 Broadway musical misses the mark on several levels.


That's Syracuse in ancient Sicily, not Upstate New York. And the Boys aren't gang members from the Hood but that fun-loving master-and-servant team Antipholus and Dromio (from Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors"), once again out in search of their identical twins in neighboring Ephesus.

But any similarity beyond Shakespeare's premise is purely coincidental in the UCSB department of dramatic arts revival of the freewheeling 1938 Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart musical "The Boys from Syracuse."

In fact, the show has more in common with the ancient farces of Plautus (Shakespeare's original source material) than with the Bard's comedy.

Except for the errors. Too many of them to put this one above the typically enthusiastic but less than professional impact of a student production.

It's too bad, because director Judith Olauson had some good intentions here: a big-scale musical decked out with plenty of spectacle and many humorous touches (such as the Greek chorus doing jazz riffs in the opening number). Olauson has directed two musicals for the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera, and regular Civic Light Opera patrons would doubtless detect many familiar elements in her staging.

But what she doesn't have here are performance resources, and it shows. While the play affords an opportunity for more than 30 student performers to get some valuable stage time, few distinguish themselves at a professional level.

The one significant exception is Kerry Neel, as the household maid married to Dromio of Ephesus. Neel is brassy, funny, and carries herself with all the energy and grandeur suited to a big-time musical. In fact, she's so good she makes everyone else on stage look limp by comparison.

It only underscores a concern that the "bigger-than-life" style of performing in those classic musicals might be on its way to extinction, along with the shows themselves. It's hard to imagine a market for plays such as this one when audiences no longer remember the context of the Broadway musical in its heyday.

Olauson's attempts to update the humor--especially playing up the bawdy jokes--sometimes liven things up, but more often come across as sad desperation, trying to make tired material topical.

More problematically, too often the humor disintegrates into broad slapstick, and badly executed slapstick at that.

Visually, however, the show's a stunner--Jay Michael Jagim's classical set design both fills and balances the cavernous Main Theatre stage with its ornate balconies, columns and houses, and Ann Bruice's colorful costumes keep the characters bobbing and weaving like glittering baubles.

The four-piece musical accompaniment under Michael Motilla's direction is regrettably sparse and downright sloppy on more than one occasion.

"The Boys from Syracuse" is fine at a community theater level, but unless you're a hard-core devotee of the genre it's probably not worth the long-distance commute, especially with its 2 1/2-hour running time.


"The Boys From Syracuse" will be performed tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m., with an additional matinee on Saturday at 2 p.m.; at the UC Santa Barbara department of dramatic art Main Theatre. Tickets are $10. For reservations or further information call 893-3535.

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