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Washington Post

'Danny & Sylvia': Putting the Kaye in 'Zany'

By William Triplett Tuesday, September 18, 2001; Page C08

Yes, it's a brand-new show, but "Danny & Sylvia: A Musical Love Story" is more like an old forgotten jewel that's been rediscovered and polished back to a splendid twinkle. For those old enough to remember Danny Kaye, whose early career in show biz is the subject, the production by American Century Theater is sure to evoke fond memories and wistful smiles. For those too young, the show is an enormously charming introduction to a genuine American original.

Long before he became forever laminated in our minds as Bing Crosby's aw-shucks partner in "White Christmas," Kaye was a remarkable solo stage act from the old school. Vaudeville and slapstick were his training, but he channeled them through his own brand of manic looniness. One of his best routines was "Melody in Four-F," a tune about enlisting in the Army, sung completely in scat, with a pratfall here and there. He was among the first entertainers to merit the description of "zany."

The show's book, by Bob McElwaine, one of Kaye's former publicists, focuses on Kaye's struggle for recognition and then rise to stardom. Besides reminding us that Kaye (Brian Childers) was indeed what he often seemed to be -- just an ordinary, likable guy with extraordinary drive and gumption -- the show makes clear the critical role Sylvia Fine (Janine Gulisano) played in his life and work. From accompanist and collaborator to later wife and manager, she inspired and sometimes bullied him onward and upward. She also wrote his best material.

Though billed as a musical, "Danny & Sylvia" is really just an old-fashioned two-character story about the fight for love and glory -- with songs thrown in. The music, by Bob Bain, is closer in spirit to revue, an impression enhanced by Mike deBlois's simple set -- a piano, stool and ottoman on a black-draped stage -- and the onstage presence of an unassuming three-piece combo.

Childers and Gulisano have pleasant voices, especially hers, which puts one in mind of warm honey. But they're not miked, and the acoustics in the auditorium of the Writer's Center in Bethesda, where they're performing, are rotten. (On Oct. 4 the show moves to Theater on the Run in Shirlington; cross your fingers that the acoustics are better there.) Both actors, however, are loaded with heart. Childers, who even looks like a young Kaye, has the fussy mannerisms and vocal quirks down. His Danny is so smart a mix of sweetness and cynicism that you root for him unabashedly. Gulisano's Sylvia is a tough, confident young New Yorker with a soft spot she doesn't often show, but when she does, it's irresistibly endearing, a real heart-winner.

Jack Marshall's streamlined directing emphasizes the awkwardness of early romance, especially when careers are also trying to be made. The jitters and doubts that plague young lovers are on full display, but Marshall always keeps things just short of sentimental, and as a result he always keeps you interested. Jacqueline Champlain Manger's simple choreography -- a slide here, a twirl there -- proves an effective, understated complement.

Jean Grogan's colorful period costumes, particularly for Sylvia, deserve special attention. Against the black background of the set, they remind us that, like Danny and Sylvia, the era had its own inimitable style and panache that are well worth remembering.

Danny & Sylvia: A Musical Love Story, book and lyrics by Bob McElwaine, music by Bob Bain. Lighting by Marc A. Wright; sound, Bill Wisnewski. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Sunday at the Bethesda Writer's Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda, and Oct. 4 through 27 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run, Shirlington. Call 703-553-8782.

Go to The Washington Post Online.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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