A funny thing happened on the way to this 21st-century revival of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s 1938 musical “The Boys From Syracuse.” The music and George Abbott’s book take lighthearted liberties with the already silly source material in Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” and director David Schweizer adopts a similar approach. He throws multiple ingredients — the sort-of ancient Greek setting, Shakespearean narrative template, burlesque revue flourishes, 1930s Broadway musical comedy aura, satire reminiscent of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and self-reflexive actors-in-the-aisles movement — into a pop-cultural blender that’s kept festively churning.
Schweizer’s desire to send up the deliberately inane plot about a dizzying case of mistaken identities is understandable. But the Center Stage production works so hard to please that everything seems overly emphatic in Ephesus.
The prevailing vaudeville tone ensures audiences at this forum will be entertained with perky comic routines, acrobatic staging, scantily clad chorus girls sporting signs announcing scene changes, zippy interpretations of such delightful Rodgers & Hart tunes as “This Can’t Be Love” and “Sing for Your Supper” and even a bit of juggling.
There’s really no reason to complain about this loose-limbed, anything-for-a-laugh take on a musical that is itself rather loosely constructed. But the hard-sell showbiz approach does tend to play up the material’s hit-or-miss nature. Some jokes agreeably hit, while others miss with such force that you find yourself musing as to why some things in life are sophomoric fun and others are just plain stupid.
Although the performers are not immune to signs of strain as they at times literally bend over backward to put on a diverting show, their high spirits prompt aud sympathies to remain with them through scripted complications too ridiculous to recount. In any event, it would take a mathematician to tabulate the confusion that ensues when two pairs of identical twin brothers embark on a story in which their intertwined destinies are made manifest.
Separated not long after birth, Dromio of Syracuse (Michael Winther), Dromio of Ephesus (Kevin R. Free), Antipholus of Syracuse (Manu Narayan) and Antipholus of Ephesus (Paolo Montalban) get confused in all sorts of ways, which this production heightens by casting actors whose varied ethnicity, weight and overall appearance make it obvious that nobody here is identical. This engenders near-surreal moments in the mistaken-identity scenario but also has the perhaps unintended effect of making one wonder if everybody in town is a village idiot.
The large supporting cast admirably manages to seem cohesive under the madcap multicultural casting and staging circumstances, with especially strong characterizations and singing by Stephen Valahovic as a sergeant trying to enforce the law amid the confusion and Charlotte Cohn as the bewildered wife of Antipholus of Ephesus.
Music director-orchestrator Wayne Barker leads a jaunty pit band that gives the revved-up performers an extra jolt, and choreographer Dan Knechtges keeps the cast moving so nimbly that they’ve surely put in some hours at an ancient Greek gym.
Besides the show’s smile-inducing music and dance, this staging is consistently pleasing in other ways. Set designer Allen Moyer’s evocation of an old-fashioned, jewel box-like theater is charming, and David Zinn’s colorful costumes are as brash as the behavior. The theater becomes a rowdy vaudeville palace, which ain’t such a bad place to be.