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The Last Days of Cleopatra

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There's always something disconcerting about seeing film stars brought to life on stage. In the best circumstances, actors playing well-known actors create an essence of the persona, allowing the audience to suspend disbelief rather than looking for a perfect impersonation.

In "The Last Days of Cleopatra," three actors are not only required to bring Elizabeth Taylor (Anna Roberts), Richard Burton (Michael Deleget), and Rex Harrison (Christopher LaCroix) to life, they must do so in a musical about the filming of the 1963 epic "Cleopatra." It's a tall order, and only Roberts succeeds, specifically when her cadences match those of the screen legend. But one resists Deleget's attempt to re-create Burton's lush Welsh intonations and LaCroix's effort to achieve Harrison's signature suave urbanity, particularly as costume designer Georgette Feldman keeps Harrison in a toga throughout.

A less bothersome (and at times charming) aspect of Charlie Barnett's book is a romantic subplot involving beleaguered Fred E. Smith (Brett Rigby) and Bianca, a beautiful, pert Italian dancer (Valerie Issembert). Director Christopher Gerken intuits this strength and frequently pulls these characters downstage while leaving Burton and Taylor pursuing their adulterous affair upstage.

Smith and Bianca get some of Barnett's most successful melodies, as does the chorus, which is allotted the most period-sounding songs. When Burton and Taylor sing, though, the music takes on a more contemporary -- and less successful -- sound. Throughout, Barnett's lyrics strain with unduly forced rhymes.

It's ironic that the principal characters in "Cleopatra" are individuals who, while associated with famed musicals, were not considered singers. Perhaps the more appropriate subjects for Barnett's musical would be lesser-known or fictional characters. In shifting the focus or creating a fictional plot, celebrity voyeurism would be lost, but a satisfying and believable show might be developed.

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