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Paulanne Simmons

Burton and Taylor...Together Again

“The Last Days of Cleopatra”
Directed by Christopher Gerken
New York Fringe Festival
The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal St, between West 3rd and Bleeker streets
Aug. 23 at 3 p.m., 25 at 5:45 p.m., 26 at 11:30 p.m., 27 at 9:30 p.m., and 28 at 1:45 p.m.
$15, (212) 279-4488, outside NY 1-888-FringeNYC
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Aug. 23, 2005

With Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in starring roles, Twentieth Century Fox and the general public certainly expected the 1963 film “Cleopatra” to be a sizzler. But as it turned out, the better part of the drama happened off the set. Although both Burton and Taylor were married, Burton to the former actress Sybil Burton and Taylor to the singer Eddie Fisher (formerly the husband of actress/singer Debbie Reynolds), the film ignited a love affair that was well documented by the paparazzi and made Cleopatra one of the most costly films in Hollywood history, mostly thanks to Taylor’s frequent absences from the set.

Composer Charlie Barnett has made good use of this material in his new musical “The Last Days of Cleopatra,” premiering at this year’s New York Fringe Festival and running Aug. 23 through 28 at The Players Theatre. He would have made better use of it had he called in a playwright to help him with the dialogue.

The Last Days of Cleopatra skips along beautifully whenever the actors are singing. Barnett’s score is tuneful, his lyrics catchy (if sometimes a bit too cute) and the actors all have great voices. But when the characters actually talk to each other, it’s hard to figure out whether they are dramatic personae who are occasionally a bit ridiculous or over-the-top caricatures who are being held up for ridicule.

The dialogue isn’t the only problem. Director Christopher Gerken seems equally confused. His entire cast consistently overacts and it isn’t clear why. At times the overacting seems the result of direction, at times it seems due to youthful exuberance and immaturity. What is clear is that Anna Roberts (Taylor), Michael Deleget (Burton) and Bobby Matoney (Fisher) all seem too young for their parts.

When the real Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their affair, Taylor had been married three times and widowed once. She was 31-years-old and the mother of two boys and a girl. Burton was almost 40 and the father of two girls. He was by all standards a drunk and a philanderer. As for Fisher, he was one of America’s best known crooners and a star of radio and TV. One could make similar observations for many of the other characters in the play. Certainly none of them were the foolish or starry-eyed individuals portrayed in The Last Days of Cleopatra.

Barnett is far more successful in his creation of alternate lovers – director Joseph Mankiewicz’s assistant Fred E. Smith (Brett Rigby) and the Italian chorus girl, Bianca (Valerie Issembert). Whether or not these characters are based on truth is not evident and not important. Free of any actual biographies, they are entirely believable and convincing.

There‘s nothing wrong with Barnett taking all the creative license he wanted. But in this work it’s not clear what he wanted.

Still, much of the musical is very enjoyable. It’s definitely worth seeing, if only for the music. With a bit of rewriting and a more mature cast this production of The Last Days of Cleopatra might well be just the beginning.

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