During my senior year of high school, I confided in my English teacher a deeply held insecurity: despite being someone who loves literature in all its forms, I find Shakespeare, history’s most revered playwright, terribly dull and difficult to trudge through as a reader. Am I intellectually deficient? Should I abandon any intention of majoring in English? Should I chalk it up to poor taste, a lack of culture?
The jury is still out on the last one, but not because of my innate aversion to the Bard. Shakespeare, Mrs. Wood reassured me, was never meant to be read; I would never truly grasp his plays until I saw them performed onstage. Thankfully, the purpose of Theater Emory’s The Boys from Syracuse, which ran Sept. 22 to Oct. 1 in the Schwartz Theater Lab under Associate Professor of Theater Studies Donald McManus’ direction, is to never take itself too seriously.
Adapted from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors with a book by George Abbott, lyrics by Lorenz Hart and music by Richard Rodgers, The Boys from Syracuse follows identical twins separated since childhood, Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse (both played by Googie Uterhardt), each accompanied by their servants, Dromio and Dromio (College sophomores Charlotte and Chloe Pak) (also identical twins — because in a Shakespearean comedy, how could they be anything else?) When the Syracusan pair ventures to Ephesus, they encounter curiously familiar sentiments — “The only good Syracusan is a dead Syracusan” and “Make Ephesus Greek again” — chalked prominently on the ground. Wasting no time in abandoning their Syracusan gear for more appropriate Columbia University attire, they are mistaken for their Ephesian counterparts, launching a tale of surreptitious love affairs, unpaid debts and run-ins with the law.
According to McManus’ director’s note, “The Boys from Syracuse was the first Broadway musical based on a Shakespearean play,” and this is all too evident in its composition. While setting such a precedent is undoubtedly a notable achievement, the score feels incongruous, dated and uncomfortably naked, seldom advancing the story. For the production to coalesce, relevant context and incredible pipes must support the songs — but they don’t, and so it doesn’t. I can’t help but compare Hart and Rodgers’ work to more successful adaptations — Bare: A Pop Opera and West Side Story from Romeo and Juliet and The Lion King from Hamlet prevail because they do not simply transcribe verse directly to song, but rather place original spins on borrowed themes and broader plot points. Music, for those works, becomes the focal point, not an afterthought. Thus, gay star-crossed lovers in a Catholic boarding school and a lion intent on re-usurping his throne come across as organic and harmonious in a way that clueless twins bopping along to swing and jazz does not.
This is not to say that Theater Emory does not skillfully play the hand it was dealt. College junior Charis Wiltshire has yet to meet an emotion she cannot express in her portrayal of Luciana, singing with a richness, warmth and delicacy that should be bottled and sent to the lovesick and brokenhearted. And when College junior Victoria Hood plays the role of the jealous, confused, loving and exasperated wife Adriana, you never feel she is acting. Shakespeare is as natural to her as breathing, which is to say nothing of her soaring, effortless voice. Atlanta-based actress Minka Wiltz’s Luce is a comedic and vocal powerhouse, evoking shades of Audra McDonald in all of her scenes. These women breathe life into their roles, carrying otherwise underwhelming co-leads. The songs to which they lend their voices — “This Can’t Be Love,” “He and She” and “Sing for Your Supper” — are lustrous highlights.
Yet we are left wanting more. The audience endures two hours of missed connections and miscommunication — but for what? A tidy, predictable resolution? That hardly feels satisfying, but what else is there? There is sexualization, and lots of it — in marital woes, social capital and chance encounters — which once held historical importance, but today seems garishly kitschy rather than significant. There are moments that elicit laughter to the point of stitches — the ensemble’s phallic flirtation with the tailor’s apprentice (College sophomore Josh Oberlander) as he sweeps is a memorable example — but by bringing levity to every quip and conflict, the musical, and whatever it tries to say, becomes so light it’s not until after we’ve finished that we realize we’ve bitten into nothing but air.
The Boys of Syracuse’s audience can never quite decide if it is too intelligent or not intelligent enough to be viewing it. Yet, even as Shakespeare’s work fades in relevance and audiences are overrun with unappreciative ignoramuses like me, we continue to read and produce his work. How could we not? Because, as the pre-show announcement retorted, “If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for us.” … Right?