The Last Days of Cleopatra: Liz and Dick and a History Making Film

There are times when real life stands on its tip-toes and screams out to the world, “Somebody please turn me into a musical!”. That probably wasn’t in the forefront of film director Joseph Mankiewicz’s mind when he cast Richard Burton to play Marc Anthony opposite Elizabeth Taylor in the title role of his mammoth 1963 spectacle, Cleopatra, but heck, the situation was just loaded with song cues. While playing the sexually-charged political adversaries, Taylor and Burton, both married, began the torrid affair that led to the first of their two marriages. Meanwhile, the $35,000,000 film nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox after its critical drubbing.

Composer/lyricist/bookwriter Charlie Barnett’s The Last Days of Cleopatra is still in its formative stages, but shows a lot of promise in developing into an old-fashioned formula musical. (And I mean those words in the most complimentary way possible.) There’s trimming to be done, more character development needed and too many false rhymes in the lyrics, but there’s still enough fun and romance at work here to leave an optimistic impression.

Barnett sets the story during location shooting in Rome where Hollywood star Taylor and respected stage actor Burton so immediately clash egos and temperaments upon meeting that you know they’re going to fall into each other’s arms eventually. When they do it stirs up the wrong kind of publicity that could kill the public’s reaction to the film before it’s even released. Burton’s love for the bottle and Taylor’s desire to be taken seriously as an actress come into play, but the main flaw of the book and lyrics is that they never go deeper than fan magazine level in exploring the central characters. The author is apparently going for something on the same grand, romantic scale as the historical characters they play, but his words are just glossing over the surface. Anna Roberts and Michael Deleget contribute fine efforts in the leads, but the decision to have them impersonate the famous duo seems to limit their capabilities to do some honest acting.The supporting cast, however, is given plenty of juicy material, including an attractive variety of musical comedy melodies, and deliver some delightful performances. On the comic side, Tom Beckett is a wonderfully frantic Mankiewicz. When partnered with Christopher Lacroix, as an amused and amusing Rex Harrison, they make the most of Barnett’s snazzy vaudeville number. Michael Siller is a charismatic paparazzi photographer with a dynamic and athletic musical turn. Michael Baldwin gets laughs with some stereotypically bitchy jokes as choreographer Hermes Pan, and Bobby Matoney is appropriately vanilla, singing a cheesy ballad as Taylor’s soon-to-be-ex, Eddie Fisher.

A secondary love story between awkward production assistant Fred E. Smith (Brett Rigby) and an Italian dancer (Valerie Issembert) is charmingly written and played. Their bilingual duet about trying to get over the language barrier is one of the show’s highlights

.Director Christopher Gerken has mounted a lively production that gives you hints of what the show could be like on a grander scale. There’s impressive work from choreographer Evan Knapp and costume designer Georgette Feldman.

Festivals like the Fringe are generally known for off-beat projects that aim for audiences that may not go for traditional book musicals that aren’t campy spoofs, so a straightforward musical with a main romantic plot, a romantic subplot and comic relief seems almost experimental. The Last Days of Cleopatra is the type of show Broadway audiences loved in the 1960’s and perhaps by the time it’s ready that type of musical may seem hip and retro.

Photo by Heather Laszlo: Michael Deleget and Anna Roberts