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The Greatest B-Movie Ever Told
The Last Days of Cleopatra

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

The Greatest B-Movie Ever Told

Is The Greatest B-Movie Ever Told really the greatest? Not really. The greatest examples of anything, even the not-so-great, are fresh in a way that Todd Michael's 50-minute play isn't. Plenty of other adjectives are appropriate: clever, affectionate, enjoyable. But not great.

Still, Michael has made sure to instill his movie (deliciously titled Bad Dames Go to Hell) with enough familiar elements to make it a quintessential B-movie knock-off: The boxer, Knuckles Dugan (Daniel Shafer), who wants to go legit as a Broadway songwriter, but has to fight just one last bout to make it happen; his long-suffering and long-engaged girlfriend Mona (Michael); the high-society cereal heiress, Isobel Van Buren (Kelly Ann Heaney), who comes between them and holds Knuckles's future in her hands; even the tough-as-nails second banana, Trixie (Pauline Miller), who always knows when and where to deliver a wise-crack.

But even within this tight set of constraints, director Neal Sims offers up a goodly amount of melodramatic fun, including despairing wails from the women and sappy violin underscoring for Knuckles's speech about his impoverished upbringing. For the most part, the performers snugly fit their rules - especially in the case of Michael, who brings a crudely voluptuous, Carol Channing-like quality to Mona - though Sims (playing Knuckles's manager and another, too-similar character) proves a more inventive director than actor. And if Michael too easily gives into temptation by including swear words and overt homosexuality references that likely wouldn't have made it past the Production Code, his script is otherwise on target.

Special mention must be made, though, of an unexpected interlude in which the "movie" we're watching is interrupted by a shampoo commercial. Miller, alone onstage and wearing a blonde wig and green frock more appropriate for 1960s late-night television, hawks the powerful hair-cleaner with a beguiling forced enthusiasm that's punctuated by rapidly shifting "camera" angles and her continuous offstage glances at invisible cue cards. This segment is the funniest, and most welcome, part of The Greatest B-Movie Ever Told. And if it's not the greatest fake commercial ever shown, it's at least impressive and original in a way that the rest of The Greatest B-Movie Ever Told is not.

The Greatest B-Movie Ever Told
Through August 28
Running Time: 50 minutes
Access Theater, 380 Broadway, 4th Floor at the corner of White Street, just below Canal Street
TICKETS: www.FringeNYC.org or by calling (212) 279-4488. Outside New York: 1-888-FringeNYC

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The Last Days of Cleopatra

Charlie Barnett's musical about the filming of the epic disaster that was the 1963 film Cleopatra is not itself a disaster. Nor, unfortunately, is it very good. The pageantry, turmoil, and violent lust that drive the story of the turbulent beginning of the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton relationship are overshadowed by a simplistic, high-school-talent-show approach to the material that reduces complex adult problems to mindless children's entertainment.

One can easily understand Barnett's attraction to the story of Taylor (Anna Roberts) and Burton (Michael Deleget) beginning their torrid affair while both married to others (she to Eddie Fisher, played here by Bobby Matoney, and he to Sybil Williams, played by Cara Kem). Set against the backdrop of one of history's most lavish and expensive films, which was bleeding money and common sense under director Joseph Mankiewicz (Tom Beckett), the stakes and expectations were impossibly high all around. Everything was big, bigger, and biggest, from beginning to end, and the Taylor-Burton pairing was destined to change film and Hollywood history. How much more musical can you get?

But most of Barnett's writing is simply silly, particularly for Taylor, who's written as an anguished, confused waif who actually sings the lyric, "This heart is still looking for true love," as though she's no different from any anonymous heroine in any anonymous musical. But Barnett sticks only to the glossy surface: He allows too many songs to be ensemble showcases (though choreographer Evan Knapp has designed some attractive, athletic dances), and his character numbers dilute painful human experiences into either musicalized dialogue or treacly sentiments more at home in show-biz tabloids than on the musical stage.

If there were enough recognizable human beings in the show, this might rank as one of the most exquisite Fringe offerings ever: Christopher Gerken's production is endlessly elaborate, with his own set design and Georgette Feldman's costumes creating an environment utterly in keeping with the original film's opulence. But that film also had huge talent and even larger personalities; no actor can adequately fill the shoes of Taylor, Burton, Fisher, Mankiewicz, Rex Harrison, or even choreographer Hermes Pan, as is required of this show's performers. (Why Hume Cronyn, Martin Landau, and Roddy McDowall aren't here, we'll probably never know.)

At times, The Last Days of Cleopatra recalls the Off-Broadway hit Orson's Shadow, which similarly depicts the backstage lives of legendary film stars. That play, however, delves deep to depict the darker sides of screen icons we only think we know; Barnett goes to absurd lengths to prove that the stars of Cleopatra were just like us. But they weren't, and Barnett's failure to realize this is concomitant with his inability to make the story work. It might be more powerful, in fact, as a spoken play, where it will matter less that these characters just don't have the right stuff to sing about.

The Last Days of Cleopatra
Through August 28
Running Time: 2 hours
Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street, just south of West 3rd Street
TICKETS: www.FringeNYC.org or by calling (212) 279-4488. Outside New York: 1-888-FringeNYC