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BWW Review: Annaleigh Ashford Gives a Quirky and Endearing Star Turn In SYLVIA

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"Even when you hit me, I love you," the young leading lady says to her middle-aged leading man the first time his character takes hers to his apartment.

Annaleigh Ashford and Matthew Broderick
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

No, this not a reinvented version of CAROUSEL that's opened at the Cort, but the first Broadway production of A.R. Gurney's clever and off-beat 1995 comedy, Sylvia.

On the surface, the play is about a married man in Manhattan who bonds with a stray dog in Central Park who has a tag around her neck saying Sylvia, and takes her home, much to the consternation of his wife. As scripted, Sylvia is played by a woman dressed in normal clothing that merely suggests her identity as a dog. And while the play is a breezy, hip and sentimental comedy, there's always the visual subtext of a young woman happily and unconditionally fawning over the older man who keeps her at the end of a leash.

"I think you're God," she tells him, and if Gurney chose to call the play "Rover" and had the title character played by a loveable lug of a guy, moments like that might not make the audience wonder if Sylvia is meant to represent something other than a dog. Particularly when it becomes clear that Sylvia can carry on conversations with humans, though she won't talk of her previous owner who apparently abused her.

But unsettling subtext probably won't be in the forefront of most people's minds when enjoying the dazzlingly funny and tender performance of Annaleigh Ashford in the title role. A gifted clown who won hearts as the lovelorn factory worker in KINKY BOOTS, received a Tony Award (and an Astaire Award nomination) for an uproarious turn as a horribly awkward, but endearingly enthusiastic ballet student in YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, Ashford solidifies her golden status as a first-rate comic actor, exuding the reality-based quirkiness of a Judy Holliday with the Chaplin-ish pathos of a Gwen Verdon.

Julie White and Matthew Broderick
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

She mimics the physicality of a dog sniffing around new locations, leaping frantically when excited and awkwardly scratching painful itches with hilarious accuracy and, when left alone in the apartment, she plaintively sings, "Ev'ry time we say goodbye I die a little," with touching simplicity.

As Greg, the new man in Sylvia's life, Matthew Broderick offers the same, low-key, somewhat juvenile performance he's been giving in his last several Broadway outings, but it fits very well here, giving a fellow who's not doing well with responsible adulthood and interpersonal relationships a Walter Mitty innocence.

Julie White has the unenviable task of playing the adult in the marriage, who sees Sylvia as an unnecessary responsibility that can muck up the balance of career and marriage, but even while playing straight for the canine's mischievous antics, she's a sympathetic realist.

Robert Sella does an excellent job with three contrasting comic roles; a friendly dog-owner Greg hangs out with in the park, a haughty female socialite who becomes the target of Sylvia's demonstrative friendliness and a cold marriage counselor of indeterminate gender.

Director Daniel Sullivan's whimsical production features a colorfully romantic view of Central Park by set designer David Rockwell and jazzy scoring by Greg Pliska, giving the evening an infectiously charming New York feel. Be sure to stick around after the curtain call for an extra dose of puppy love.

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From This Author Michael Dale