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A CurtainUp Review


This is the third time this season we've been treated to a pre-curtain concert by a keyboard musician who's also very much present during the rest of the show. First, there was Steve Ross in Present Laughter, ( Present Laughter Review ), second there was Robert Lamont in June Moon, ( June Moon Review), and now we have Bruce Hurlbut's recreating the ara of an old movie emporium in Moliere's Scapin à la Bill Irwin. Things coming in threes may not make a trend but in all these plays the casting of musicians to be part of the show as well as to set the mood works nicely. In the case of Scapin Hurlbut in his bright red tails and top hat is one of the evening's major pleasures.

The chief attraction of the new Scapin is of course Bill Irwin who has become this decade's king of clowns. Without uttering a single words, he can set off a peal of laughter with his devilish and endearing grins and grimaces. His clumsy-looking wobbly movements have all the agility of a Fred Astaire. It was his wordless clowning and dancing that made his other Broadway show Fool Moon such a hit. Now, he appears on the stage of Roundabout's Laura Pels Theater as the talking rogue who was originally portrayed by Moliere himself. The plot, such as it is, centers on Scapin, a servant who manipulates two miserly merchants, one his master, and the other a fellow servant's. Naturally, the scheming also involves making sure that their sons end up with the girls of their dreams.

As Irwin is the raison d'être drawing audiences to this revival, he is also the major cause for its shortcomings. There's nothing wrong with his speaking voice and he metamorphoses nicely from the "schlemiel" clown of Fool Moon to the type who manipulates the other players and the audience. The problems stem from his expanded role as director and co-adaptor as well as star performer. Perhaps he was inspired by Scapin who despite being a humble servant was willing to take risks. However, while Scapin's risky machinations work out in the play, Irwin's try at balancing a 3-legged stool, topples on its directorial and adaptating legs.

In fulfilling the director's responsibility for the quality of the cast, Irwin deserves an A+ for his selection of Christopher Evan Welch as Sylvestre, the servant who serves as his foil. The rest of the cast is unfortunately underwhelming. The two female romantic parts are weighed down by preening and giggling that's downright annoying. The cast does manage to pull together into a cohesive whole but unfortunately this doesn't happen until the finale.

While the adaptation for which Irwin shares responsibility with Mark O'Donnell sticks to the original plot it veers heavily towards contemporary allusions and language, a practice not uncommon to the Comedia del Arte of Moliere's day--and with precedent in other reincarnations of this particular farce (the Broadway adaptation starring Jim Dine and the more recent CSC production which starred Stanley Tucci, now of Big Night fame). Precedent or not, this adaptation ends up shortchanging both Moliere and his interpreters. In anticipation of seeing this adaptation, we read through a translation of the original play and found several omissions though these are less troubling than the Irwin/O'Donnell additions. Many of their contemporary, audience-tailored elements simply fail to draw the intended non-stop, knee-slapping laughter. Maybe it's because the audience has seen the same television shows that inspired Irwin and that most of the allusions have been co-opted by current talk show hosts. Thus sly references of O.J. and his lawyers are recognizable but no longer very fresh. When Irwin turns up in a box dressed in a red suit as "a Roundabout subscriber" you tend to stop mid-chuckle to wonder "why does this Moliere theater evening feel like I'm at a live filming of a recording session of a television show?"

To return to the more positive aspects of this production, the attractive, farce-friendly black and white set has the same just-right cartoon-y quality of another and more successful remake of servant-master tomfoolery, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. . The set would have been even better without vaudeville props like signs announcing "Exposition" and "Coincidence" and a clock that moves as Scapin announces that time passes. Victoria Petrovich's costumes, especially Irwin's Chaplinesque baggy pants outfit, are also fine.

As for the already mentioned Bruce Hurbut, he, unlike Irwin, does indeed deliver as a triple-threat talent (composer, arranger and keyboard performer). If there were more scenes like the one in which he accompanies the play's two chief scamps as they dance "The Schemer's Boogie" we could safely recommend this as a must-see. As it is, you're either going to love it or hate it, or settle for its funny interludes.

Playwright: Moliere
Adaptation by Bill Irwin and Mark O'Donnell
Directed by Bill Irwin
Cast: Marina Chapa/ Zerbinette, Kristin Chenoweth/ Hyacinth, Mary Bond Davis/ Nernine, Bill Irwin/ Scapin, Hillel Meltzer/ Gendarme & Porter, Sean Rector/ Gendarme& Porter, Maduka Steady/ Octave, Count Stovall/ Argante, Gerry Vichi/ Geronte, Jonathan Wade/ Leander, Christopher Evan Welch/ Sylvestre
Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre
From 1/09/97 to 3/23/97
Douglas Stein, Set Designer
Victoria Petrovich, Costume Designer

Bruce Hurlbut, Musician
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

The Broadway Theatre Archive

©Copyright 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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