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Prince and Pauper makes splendid musical

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP

NEW YORK, Aug. 9 (UPI) -- Mark Twain subtitled his historical fantasy, "The Prince and the Pauper," as "A Tale for Young People of All Ages," and in its new form as a stage musical it lives up to that billing.

The production of "The Prince and the Pauper," set to music by Neil Berg at the Lamb's Theater, just off Broadway, is a delightfully fresh look at Twain's classic novel about two 10-year-old London boys who swap identities in the final year of the reign of Henry VIII. One is the urchin son of the leader of a gang of pickpockets. The other is Edward, Prince of Wales who ascended the throne in 1547.

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Berg, an alumnus of the prestigious BMI Workshop, has written a vivid, lilting score, generously melodic but unpretentious. He also wrote the lyrics with Bernie Garzia, who in turn wrote the show's book with Ray Roderick, associate director of that perennial favorite, "A Christmas Carol," at Madison Square Garden Theater. Roderick also directs "The Prince and the Pauper."

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Others associated with "A Christmas Carol" include cast members Dennis Michael Hall and Gerardo Canonico, who play the prince and the pauper respectively, and Allison Fischer, as the nubile Lady Jane. It is a pleasant reunion of experienced young talents who know how to give quality performances and have fun at the same time.

Fun is the working principle of Roderick's direction, although Twain may have had more serious subjects -- social injustice, abuse of power, and the inequities of the class system -- on his mind. The musical, which hews closely to the novel, never overlooks Twain's concerns, but it never overplays them either by preaching fair play and compassion in more than the most general terms.

The staging of this show is never less than colorful but the conflicts of Twain's plot are depicted in black and white. Prince Edward and the pauper, Tom Canty by name, face real perils and are to be cheered when they overcome them. The villain, the prince's villainous chancellor, is to be hissed for his attempt to control his royal charge and the young noblewoman, Lady Edith, whom he has seduced under false pretenses.

Melodrama aside, "The Prince and the Pauper" stands up as rousing entertainment full of hanky-panky, swordplay, street violence, and royal panoply. It is peopled by such characters as street ruffians, a saintly priest, an inscrutable hermit, a loving mother and upstairs-downstairs residents of the palace. It's a heady mix, relished by Twain fans since the novel was first published in 1881.

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Canonico as the pauper is the more lovable of the two boys by nature of his role, and he is a young actor with all the right dramatic instincts that just might be translated into adult stardom. Hall is an equally fine actor, endowing Prince Edward with the admirable qualities that might have made him a great king if he had lived longer (he died after little more than six years on the throne).

Stephen Zinnato's portrait of Hugh Hendon, the prince's conniving chancellor, is a masterpiece of nastiness, in perfect contrast to the performance of Rob Evan who plays Hendon's noble brother, Miles, with heroic bravado.

Miles defuses Hugh's plans to rule England through King Edward by returning unexpectedly "from the dead" to reclaim his birthright and the lovely Lady Edith, his true love, played wiltingly by Rita Harvey.

Other performances of note are those of Allison Fisher as the easily infatuated Lady Jane, Michael McCormick as the pauper's toughly philosophical father, John Canty, and Sally Wilfert as his wife, Mary Canty, torn between her loyalty to husband and son.

Several cast members take multiple roles. For example, McCormick sheds the rags of a cutpurse for the robes of royalty in a brief appearance as Henry VIII.

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Set designer Dana Kenn has taken the paneled Elizabethan interior of the old Lamb's Club theater, designed by renowned architect Stanford White in 1904, and made it an extension of his richly gilded Tudor-era stage scenery, imaginatively lit by Eric Haugen. This is stage design worthy of any multi-million dollar Broadway musical and deserves its own round of applause.

Costumes by Sam Fleming complete the richness of this production and constitute a veritable handbook of English fashion in the 16th century, from the lowest rung to the highest perch of society. This is a show that would have made Mark Twain proud, bringing to theatrical life a story that age cannot wither because of its basic appeal to the best in human nature.

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