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MORE THAN ACTING A BUFFALO NATIVE GENTLY TUGS ON HEART STRINGS

"ACTING A Romance," an original musical by Buffalo native Bryan D. Leys and composer James Campodonico, opened recently at the Alleyway Theatre. It is an engaging, often sophisticated and witty piece of theater, well-acted and beautifully sung by Katy Clancy and Tom Owen.

The direction here is by Neal Radice, who also designed the sets, lighting and some vocal arrangements. Musical direction and arrangement is by Don Jenczka, whose low-key, lyrical piano accompaniment did much to set the production's tone.

The play is based on characters and concepts articulated by actor Richard Boleslavsky in his book "Acting: The First Six Lessons."

It is on this interesting frame that Leys hangs a tale of a 30-year relationship between a man and women (a sure-fire recipe for a tear-jerker) who are serially, student/teacher, virtual strangers, lovers, enemies, business partners, enemies again and finally -- as they have truly been all along -- deep and abiding friends. The music and lyrics are more traditional than daring in form and content, but they are, ultimately, pleasant, funny, '50s and and warm, as if "My Sister Eileen" had married "Same Time Next Year."

Alas, the play begins weakly with a conventional, even trite, story motif and lyrics whose preciousness is saved only by the pleasant melodies that accompany them. Fortunately, by the end of Act I, Leys moves beyond the hyper-romantic treatment of Catholic girlhood, New York-New Yorkityness, "the struggle of a life in the theatah" (which is certainly less than say, the struggle of a life on the margins of warfare, disease or poverty) and young love in Paris.

He also and thankfully stops dropping Shakespeare's name every four minutes and moves into a gleefully satirical, biting and very funny take on Hollywood (OK, it's been done before but it's done with considerable chi-chi here) followed by a sardonic and chilling look at love's backstage that reminded me of some glittery bit of Kurt Weill-ian nastiness.

Clancy and Owen really begin to shine here. They are in excellent voice throughout and are vocally quite well matched, but it isn't until they get to sing "drunk," "stoned" and irked stiff that their characters develop dimension.

In Act II, things really start to hop. Hissy little dark sides sing duets, eye one another with suspicion, loathing and gratitude and argue cleverly and musically about who owes who what and what kind of relationship they could ever have. "Partners," a charming and upbeat song, celebrates the friendship forged in the fires of time.

The two go on the road together, bouncing around a "bus," singing paeons to the scourge of the theatrical tour, fighting, loving and hating one another. OK, I won't tell you about the shameless (and true-to-life) two-Kleenix ending that I will forgive only because of the restraint shown by the actors, director and writer in not milking it for more than it was worth. (Hint: "Did you evah know that yo mah hee-roh?")

Get through the first half hour, see? Then let "Acting a Romance" suck you in, chew you up, and spit you out onto Pearl Street, teary-eyed and with your heart-bone nicely toasted. It's sentimental and perhaps not for everyone, but I liked it. On the other hand, I saw "Hit the Deck" 11 times. I liked that, too. Hey, Mikey!

Musical Theater
Acting a Romance
Rating: ****
New musical by Bryan D. Leys and James Campodonico.
Directed by Neal Radice, featuring Katy Clancy, Tom Owen, accompanist Don Jenczka.
Performances continue Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2 through April 16 in the Alleyway Theatre, One Curtain Up Alley (852-2600).

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