Da Boyz, Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London *

Rhoda Koenig
Saturday 21 December 2013 03:44
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This hip-hop adaptation of The Comedy of Errors – one of two shows of that description that opened on the same night last week – is based both on Shakespeare and on the 1938 musical The Boys from Syracuse. Messing with the work of the greatest of all musical comedy teams (with the possible exception of Frank Loesser and Frank Loesser) didn't strike me as a good idea, but I packed my open mind into my handbag and set off.

Alas, my review of Da Boyz could be condensed to "Worst Fears Confirmed": the men are portrayed as either fools or hustlers, the women as robots or sluts, and the exquisite waltzes, punchy duets, and impish comedy numbers either altered by simple perversity (in "This Can't Be Love," for instance, by failing to resolve a chord) or, more often, bludgeoned and broken by constant pounding and thumping.

Unlike The Bomb-itty of Errors, Da Boyz has a large cast, all black and of both sexes. The tone is much more aggressive and sexual. The men persistently stroke their crotches to indicate appreciation of female charms, or simply to assert their male identity. There is but a groat's worth of wit. The locale is indicated, on a set whose only other decoration is chain-link fence, by the text-message version of the city: FSS. The fat female comic, instead of complaining, as per Lorenz Hart, of "acres and acres of beauty going to waste," puts a glottal stop in "beauty" and shakes it.

While opinions may differ about the merits of the show, what's indisputable is that Da Boyz, though part of Stratford East's laudable effort to develop shows using current pop music, is not a work of musical theatre.

Since the 1920s, the musical has used song and dance not merely to entertain but to move the plot along, to extend our understanding of the characters, and to allow those characters to express feelings that transcend prose. Da Boyz has more in common with a pop concert or a TV variety show than a musical. The libretto has been slashed to the barest minimum, and is literally sidelined onto large screens flanking the stage on which the actors, behind the scenes, mug their way through brief comic bits. The mood of the music, either angry or glumly earnest, is not up to conveying more than a limited number of emotions, and rather unpleasant ones at that. Susan Lawson-Reynolds (Bustah) is the one performer who stands out, managing to get across an impish charm in "Sing for Your Supper", though even that song is purged of the three part harmony that made it great. I was nevertheless pleased to hear the young audience respond fervently to it. How would they respond to the original? Will they ever get a chance to find out?

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