- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 29, 2002

"Danny and Sylvia," MetroStage's musical about the life of Danny Kaye and his wife, Sylvia Fine, is intended to re-introduce audiences to the couple, but provides little more than some sight gags and silly accents.
Kaye, who appeared in many films and musicals in the 1950s and '60s, was a huge star in his day, but his reputation is declining with time. His shtick, consisting of tongue twisters and explosive energy, has lost its luster, and he was never a good enough singer and dancer to make us remember him for those things, either.
MetroStage is remounting this American Century Theatre's production as the final show of its season.
Anyone expecting an expose of the dark side of Kaye will be disappointed. There are allusions to affairs with other women, but they are brushed aside. The only element of danger is dismissed quickly, as well, when Fine tells Kaye he should take a position on the McCarthy hearings (not to condemn the real communists in Hollywood but because he opposed the efforts to expose them).
"Trust the material," Sylvia (Perry Payne) says at one point to Danny (Brian Childers). Good advice, but the actors have to go beyond what they're given in this production. The songs are mostly forgettable. "La Vie Paree" and "At Liberty" are supposed to kick off the play with a jolt. They aren't terrible, but they lack sparkle and verve.
There is no drama until the second act, when it looks as if the marriage is going to break up. Sure, there is the budding romance in the first act, but we're reasonably sure they'll end up together since the musical is called "Danny and Sylvia."
Aside from the marital problems which offer the actors a chance to do some real acting, making for some riveting scenes the plot is thin, with only two characters to play off each other. Of those two, only Sylvia changes over the course of the play, from headstrong, confident rehearsal pianist to Danny's agent and creative director.
One strange thing is that few of Kaye and Fine's songs are in the play. Directors Jack Marshall and Jacqueline Marshall say that one of their purposes is to resurrect the pair's legacy, but the libretto only includes one number by Fine, "Anatole of Paris." She wrote many songs especially for him, and one reason she is forgotten as a songwriter is because he was the only one who could sing them or so goes the explanation.
As the titular Sylvia, Miss Payne outclasses her material. She tends to color her notes by sliding them a little flat, then bringing them back, belying her jazz background. Her voice isn't as chesty and bright as a Broadway diva's; she isn't afraid to use nasal intonations when she wants to add depth and variety to her singing.
The period clothing that costume designer Jean Grogan picked out for her looks great and emphasizes the transition between hardworking musician and Hollywood power broker. Also, she's just as good an actress as she is a singer, and she's a very fine singer. Miss Payne was the best thing about MetroStage's 2001 revue "Starting Here, Starting Now."
Next week, Janine Gulisano, the "original" Sylvia takes over the role, and Miss Payne returns to the New York City cabaret scene.
Mr. Childers, who bears a vague resemblance to Kaye, has the same scenery-chewing intensity throughout the entire play. Granted, the real Danny Kaye was known for his over-the-top physical comedy, but still. His gesticulations become so manic and repetitive that by the end you want to shout, "Enough with the hands."
His main fault is that he mistakes volume for energy and humor. Mr. Childers shines brightest in the closing number, "Minnie the Moocher," written by Cab Calloway, Clarence Gaskill and Irving Mills, suggesting that a better score would have made for a better performance.
When the actors dance as a couple, they seem slightly awkward and clumsy, as if they aren't quite comfortable moving their bodies together. When they are not singing, they interact much better, though when they kiss, Miss Payne's height and Mr. Childers' lack thereof look almost Oedipal.
In real life, Kaye and Fine's marriage survived their individual failings, ending with his death in 1987. Although their work probably is undervalued today, and though "Danny and Sylvia" has some charming moments, it probably won't be the vehicle that raises their public recognition.

WHAT: "Danny and Sylvia"
WHERE: MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through July 28
PHONE: 703/548-9044

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