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Broadway Revives 2400-Year-Old Play - 2004-07-30

Some of the United States' biggest musical comedy stars have combined forces to bring a 2400-year-old Greek drama to Broadway. VOA Correspondent Barbara Schoetzau recently saw the new production of Aristophanes' The Frogs.

The Frogs was a big hit in Athens when it was first produced in 405 BC. Aristophanes, the great comic writer of classical Greek theater, wrote The Frogs with the lengthy war between Athens and Sparta in mind. In the play, Dionysos, the God of Drama and Wine, descends to the underworld to bring back a great playwright to inspire the Athenians.

The late director Burt Shevelove loosely adapted the Greek classic into a musical comedy in 1974, with music by composer Stephen Sondheim. In the adaptation, William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw fight a duel of words for the honor of inspiring the Athenians. Now, award-winning director and choreographer Susan Stroman is staging a version even more loosely adapted by actor Nathan Lane, with several new songs by Mr. Sondheim. Mr. Lane plays Dionysos.

Lane: "I, Dionysis, god of drama, am going to travel to the underworld and bring back a great writer, who can speak to the problems of our society and give us comfort, wit and wisdom."

Mr. Lane is without a doubt one of Broadway's most bankable stars. The hit show he starred in recently, The Producers, broke records on Broadway. He has rewritten much of The Frogs to reflect his own brand of slapstick comedy, with obvious references to current politics. Mr. Lane says starring in a show he also helped write is a new experience.

"It has been odd at times, being the writer in the middle of all the actors, and hearing your own worlds come back at you. Sometimes it is nice, and sometimes it haunts you," said Mr. Lane.

The Frogs reunites Mr. Lane with Roger Bart, another actor from The Producers, who is a rising star on Broadway. Mr. Bart plays Xanthias, Dionysos' comic slave.

Bart: "First, I have to grip, then shovel with my hip, that I have blisters on lip. This trip is giving me the pip."

Lane: "You can stop grinding right there. Now cheer up. We are on our way to save mankind."

Mr. Bart has won praise for taking on the part, after another actor left just three days before previews began.

"One second, I was on my way to the beach with my three-and-a-half year-old, when Susan called up and said, 'would you like to come and see the show, and maybe do us a favor?' So I went. Suddenly, about 10 a.m. the next day, I was buckling down like I was in college for exams, and I was cramming as much as I could and learning as much as I could," recalled Mr. Bart."

The show has some delicious moments, and is a visual feast, with beautiful sets and costumes. The Frogs of the title are acrobats, who catapult across the stage. Goddesses swing on bungee cords and a boat lowered from the ceiling then sails along a rotating stage. But despite eye-catching effects and the constellation of stars associated with the show, The Frogs has been somewhat of a disappointment, receiving mixed reviews.

The New York Times critic says the show has the highest concentration of blue ribbon talent of any show on Broadway, but he wrote even the crčme de la crčme can curdle.

Local television critic Roma Torre describes the comic aspects of the show as hilarious. The problem, she says, are the dramatic sections.

"It is, at times, hysterically funny. But Lane tries for something much deeper. Whenever it turns serious and earnest, which is basically the entire Second Act, the show falls flat."

Still, Time Out magazine says, The Frogs is the American musical at its most robustly combustible: a synthesis of high and low traditions in the service of a populist message.

In the end, of course, it is usually the audiences who decide. And the limited run of The Frogs is selling out.