Death on the Nile

The Sphinx Winx, a dire goulash of a musical, is an artifact unearthed from half a century ago. The creators wrote the show back in the early 1950s when they were attending Dickinson College. The script lay dormant all these years until librettist Robert Heuch pulled it out, thought it had possibilities, and contacted his collaborators to polish it up. They include composer and lyricist Ken Hitchner Jr. and his wife, Anne, who reworked the book with Philip Capice and Heuch. The result might provoke nostalgia for an earlier time if you have an urge to revisit a wildly overextended sketch on a 1950s TV variety show or, possibly, a labored skit in a theatrical revue of the period, like New Faces. It’s a show of sheer tomfoolery, and perhaps only clowns of the caliber of Sid Caesar or Milton Berle could make it work. Characters talk to the audience, react to sound effects, and put on inappropriate accents, such as Southern U.S., cockney, and upper-crust Brit, for no apparent reason. Anachronistic references abound but have little comic effect: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”; “Don’t cry for me, blessed Egypt!”; “Crecia, quick. Peel me a grape.” And an important message from Rome is written in hieroglyphics.

The plot involves Cleopatra’s failure to pay tribute to Rome for 14 months. Antony has been sent out to do an audit. Caesar (played by Bruce Sabath with a Jack Gilford nebbishness) says he doesn’t know where the money is, although he’s been showering gifts on Cleopatra, including building a sphinx that winks. Erika Amato’s vain, changeable queen is smitten by the strapping Antony, of course, and Antony falls in love with Cleopatra’s slave girl, Crecia.

Although much of the humor comes off as sophomoric, it’s really classic comic schtick. Sample: when Lunia reports to Cleopatra that Antony has been seen with her servant, the empress turns jealous: “Who was with him? Was it Rose? Or Lily? Or that Philodendron?” One can imagine that line scoring with Imogene Coca or Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett, but not here. In spite of the show’s try-anything spirit, it just doesn’t come together under Matthew Hamel’s direction. Indeed, much of the acting carries a strong whiff of desperation.

The writers have borrowed liberally and perhaps unwisely from better shows. The Soothsayer (an egregiously mugging Ryan Williams, with pink spectacles) introduces himself and claims to know from a recently discovered manuscript the true story of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Marc Antony, and his opening number is modeled on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Whether it existed in the original version of Sphinx, which predates Forum by a decade, is difficult to judge, but it feels unlikely.

Later, Julius’s daughter Lunia (Beth Cheryl Tarnow, skillful in an irritating role) proves too meddlesome to the wily, slave-girl heroine, and is coaxed into a sarcophagus for a long-distance trip, much like Lorraine Sheldon in The Man Who Came to Dinner. A song that Caesar delivers about his numerous female conquests rather uncomfortably reminds one of “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” from Kiss Me, Kate. To be fair, if you’re going to steal, Cole Porter is a great guy to steal from. (And heck, he stole from himself—“They Couldn’t Compare to You” from Out of This World recycles the same concept.)

Still, the score is serviceable, and the lyrics are sturdy and sometimes clever, especially in Cleopatra’s opening number. A dream of Antony’s and a song, “Act Yourself,” in which doctors try to revive a fainted Cleopatra, also have amusing moments, but tellingly, neither interlude is crucial to the slim plot.

However, as in New Faces, some pleasurable talent breaks through. On his first entrance, Bret Shuford makes an impression as a sharply drawn messenger (in spite of a cockney accent) announcing Antony’s approach. Shortly after, he enters as the general himself, bringing an authority and heroic masculinity to Antony that are winning. His love ballads with Rebecca Riker’s slave girl Crecia are sweet and wholesome highlights of the production. Shuford, who also has a few opportunities to show off his dancing, may not rise above the material in the final courtroom scene, but he never stoops for a laugh; his Antony is all of a piece.

Riker also combines charm with a lovely singing voice, and does quite a good impression of Sarah Palin when she plays Enobarbus, a female attorney, in the climactic court scene. Still, one suspects that if she and Shuford weren’t the love interest and had more to do with the comic business, their talents would be swamped as well.

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