Back in Old Egypt for a Song and Dance with Cleo and Julius

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Sphinx Winx
Beckett Theater
Theater Row
W. 42d. Street
New York, N.Y.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that Julius Caesar, famed tough guy dictator of the Roman Empire, was also a skilled song and dance man.  And that his beloved Cleopatra could do a pretty good job of hoofing it with him.  Or that Cleopatra’s aide, Enobarbus, was actually a dead ringer for Sarah Palin.

These are just some of the previously undisclosed historical facts revealed in a new, and shaky, musical about Caesar and Cleopatra, Sphinx Winx, that opened last week at the Beckett Theater on Theater Row in New York.

In the program notes, director Matthew Hamel tells the audience that Sphinx Winx is a combination vaudeville and burlesque show that parodies the Caesar/Cleopatra/Marc Antony legend, like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  It is a series of sometimes clever and sometimes dreary skits that poke fun at the romantic threesome in Old Egypt, where Antony worries about a cute slave girl, Cleopatra worries about her hair, and mighty Caesar is skimming money off tax payments to Rome.

Parts of Sphinx Winx are very funny, parts are accurate history, and parts are solid drama, the problem with the play is that the vaudeville part of it doesn’t really kick in until it is half finished.  There is a point where Caesar, in his toga, picks up a straw hat and cane and does a wonderful soft-shoe… er… soft-sandal dance across the stage.  That captured the vaudeville spirit and from that point on Sphinx Winx was a marvelous vaudevillian parody of ancient history.

The trouble is that until that moment you just cannot figure out what playwrights/lyricists Philip Capice, Anne Hitchner, Kenneth Hitchner Jr. and Robert Keuch are trying to do with the musical.

The show opens with a witty soothsayer explaining that Caesar bought Cleopatra a huge—and very expensive—sphinx that winks when it sees someone in love.  There is a lot of love around Cleopatra’s palace, too, as she seduces old Julius and yearns for Mark Antony when he arrives.  Antony has sailed in to find out what’s going on in Alexandria, as no taxes have been sent to Rome since Caesar’s arrival as Egypt’s new governor.  He conducts an investigation that takes up most of the play.  Meanwhile, Caesar’s dopey daughter Lundia is busy chasing Antony, Antony is chasing the slave girl Lucretia, and Caesar tries hard to hold on to the voluptuous Cleopatra as she yearns for the young, good looking Antony.

There’s a lot of buffoonery and bad music in the first half of the show and director Hamel has the plot going off in a dozen different and awkward directions.  The audience just does not know what is going on in Old Egypt, Old Rome or Old Anywhere.

By the time the vaudeville routine kicks in, the audience is hopelessly confused.  From the middle of the play on, though, Sphinx Winx is pretty funny.  There is a trial for Caesar with the toga-clad Palin look-alike conducting Caesar’s defense, a Judy Judge type of magistrate deciding the case and Cleopatra still yearning for everybody.  There is an American Idol skit and a reference to Gone with the Wind.  After each witness takes the stand, the TA-DA musical thump of the Law and Order television show is heard, a cutesy trick that’s not without its charms.

Question:  Cleopatra wears the same dress throughout the entire play. She was a fashionista, wasn’t she?  The Queen should have had at least as many shoes as Imelda Marcos, right?

In the end, Cleo, who can’t find an asp when she needs one, Julius, Marc and others dance their way off into history and a date on the Ides of March.

What the creators and director of Sphinx Winx try to do is produce a witty parody of ancient history.  Half of it is good and half of it fails.

There is also little usable history in the story.  The playwrights take the general, well-known history of Caesar and Cleopatra, add some questionable history of their own, toss in some songs and stir it up.  Egyptian or Roman scholars will find little here to please them.  The personalities of the characters are very thin, too.  This weak and worried Caesar wouldn’t scare anybody on a battlefield.  The women in this story are so lightly written that they could make up the cast of Real Housewives of Ancient Rome.

Despite the flaws, director Hamel has a sturdy cast.  Erika Amato is a witty Cleopatra, who can’t get good help anywhere, Bruce Sabath is the humorous conniving Caesar, Bret Shuford the handsome and stern Antony, Rebecca Riker the seductive slave girl, Beth Tarnow is the loony Caesar’s daughter, and Ryan Williams the delightful and very talented soothsayer.

The problem with the musical is that, well, the sphinx does not wink enough.

PRODUCTION: Producers: Tifft Productions. Music: Kenneth Hitchner, Jr., Sets: Robert Andrew Kovach, Costumes: Gail Baldoni, Lighting: Annmarie Duggan, Sound: David M. Lawson. Directed by Matthew Hamel.

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