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Talented Cast Surpasses the Play in `The Petrified Prince'

Despite sterling effort by director Hal Prince, the production never comes to full flower

THE PETRIFIED PRINCE. Based on an Ingmar Bergman screenplay. At the Joseph Papp Public Theatre through Jan. 15.

Hal Prince, currently represented on Broadway with three hit shows, demonstrates in ``The Petrified Prince'' that he is no less adept as a director Off Broadway than on.

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In this presentation, based on an unproduced screenplay by Ingmar Bergman, he continually works his theatrical magic. It's the show itself that lets him down.

The convoluted plot, set in the country of ``Slavonia'' in 1807, deals with the efforts of the Queen (played by Candy Buckley) to hold onto the throne after the not-so-accidental death of her husband. Her son, Prince Samson (Alexander Gaberman), would make the natural heir, but he's in an apparently permanent state of stupor. Other contenders include the Pope (Ralph Byers); Roberta (Loni Ackerman), a banished Gypsy cousin; and even Napoleon (Alan Braunstein).

The show is all over the place, varying wildly in tone and containing a little bit of everything, including ribald shadow-puppet theater, dancing mechanical animals that wouldn't look out of place in Disneyland, and a love song involving the Pope that might be offensive to some theatergoers.

The music and lyrics are by highly acclaimed composer Michael John LaChiusa. Having seen three of his musicals in the last year or so (``First Lady Suite,'' ``Hello Again''), I can't say that I can recall a single piece of music, although his lyrics are consistently inventive.

This is LaChiusa's most accessible score yet, however, and it has been beautifully arranged for a small orchestra by Jonathan Tunick.

Unfortunately, the wittiness of the lyrics is undercut by the flatness of Edward Gallardo's book, which renders the show (aiming to be a lighthearted, satirical fairy tale a la ``Pippin'') flat and humorless.

Choreographer Rob Marshall, who has quickly established himself as a leading figure with his work in ``She Loves Me,'' ``Damn Yankees,'' and ``Kiss of the Spider Woman,'' has provided humorous and energetic musical staging for such numbers as ``A Woman in Search of Happiness'' and ``One Little Taste.''

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Like most shows these days, the players are superior to the material.

Here the cast is a huge one, 27 people in all, comprising both newcomers and such veterans as Loni Ackerman, Jane White, and Marilyn Cooper.

Catskill comic Mal Z. Lawrence even shows up playing two roles, and acquits himself admirably. Buckley provides an alluring malevolence as the scheming Queen, and the ever-reliable Gabriel Barre once again shows his flair for physical comedy. Timothy Jerome is a riot as a cardinal.

James Youmans has provided versatile scenic designs, and Prince stages the work with his usual flair and stylishness. Despite their efforts, ``The Petrified Prince'' doesn't reach its full potential.