Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the December 15,

2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

NJ Shakespeare Review: ‘Illyria’

Recently married to each other, Princeton graduates Cara Reichel and

Peter Mills evidently didn’t care or didn’t know the number of times

that William Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night" had been previously adapted

as a musical. Happily this history did not prevent one of

Shakespeare’s most popular comedies from getting a brand new – and

entirely first rate – musical treatment from these co-habiting

collaborators.

The almost constant flow of melodic music and witty lyrics all but

dances with an ingratiating ebullience throughout the show. The

performances, under the direction of Paul Mullins, are not only

uniformly winning but many come within show-stopping brilliance.

Essentially, the book by Reichel and Mills and the music and lyrics by

Mills validate the source material. This is an entertainment (perfect

for the holidays) that actively flaunts with great charm and unbridled

esprit of the original title’s tag "Or What You Will."

But the team has also respected Will’s will by honoring the original

setting and time period (more or less). Remaining true to this

famously titillating celebration of love, propelled by its now

familiar devices of mistaken identity, separated twins, and gender

deception, the team has slightly tempered, but not totally excised,

the darker aspects of the plot. No cause for alarm, however, as even

their lightened and brightened up version retains the play’s inference

of madness and its unconventional investigation of "true" love.

Mottled high white walls and faux arches flank an upstage spiral

staircase. Above two slightly raised playing areas is an open alcove

that supports seven musicians. Isn’t this just what you would expect

to find in the center of "Illyria," a place (handsomely designed by

Michael Schweikardt) where the by-love-consumed inhabitants are less

likely to orate than they are to sing of their predicaments and

passions. So what else is new, you may ask? Plenty. In the one most

notable change from Shakespeare’s text, Viola uses her brother’s name

and not Cesario, thereby adding to the compounding confusion of who’s

who.

It is for Feste (Joel Blum), Olivia’s favored jester and soon ours, to

preside over the narrative, but he is entrusted initially with the

prologue and montage, in which he introduces the play’s characters and

notably the comely twins Viola (Elena Shaddow) and Sebastian (Chris

Peluso), who have been separated by a shipwreck.

Wearing an oversized colorful patchwork coat, Feste adorns the action

with an obvious disregard for haute couture, but with a real flair for

juggling. Blum earns our whole-hearted approval with a motor-mouth

delivery of "Silly Little Syllogisms," a hilarious patter song from

the Gilbert and Sullivan school, and later with "The Lunatic," a

nostalgically choreographed vaudeville number that allows him to

perform a delightful soft-shoe enhanced exorcism over the

madness-inflicted Malvolio (Ames Adamson). Blum’s exuberance is such

that he inadvertently chipped off a huge chunk of scenery with his

foot on opening night. Without losing a beat he picked it up, used it

as a mirror, and flung it into the wings.

Adamson is no slouch either as a top banana among many as he invests

"Malvolio’s Tango" with more traces of Theda Bara than Valentino.

Beauty and talent are beautifully wedded in the case of Shaddow, whose

petite figure is buoyed by a sturdy voice and a winsome presence.

Shaddow’s rapier duel with the foppish Humpty-Dumpty-ish Sir Andrew

Aguecheek (Benjamin Eakeley) scores a comical 10. Maria Couch also

gets high marks as Lady Olivia, the rich countess in mourning who gets

over it quickly enough. As sung to Viola, Couch’s big number,

"Undone," is a torchy evening gloves-removing howler that invites

memories of Rita Hayworth in "Gilda."

Despite the score’s occasional nod to vintage operetta duets as in

"How These Things Start," and the slyly insinuating "We Men," sung by

the love-smitten Viola and the vain but sentimental Duke Orsino (Steve

Wilson), the songs take a fresh and frisky approach to traditional

theater music. Wilson is not about to let anyone steal all the laughs

as he creates a uniquely gracious yet stuck-on-himself Orsino, with

the tail of his red velvet cloak obediently trailing a few paces

behind him. Wilson’s savviest musical declaration is "Whoever You

Are," in which he woos Shaddow without regard for her sex. "Save One,"

a grandly melodic quartet for Olivia, Orsino, Viola and Feste provides

a memorable close for Act I.

There’s even a touch of Kurt Weill to be savored in "The Man is Mine,"

sung in counterpoint by the lusty Maria, Olivia’s maid, and Sir Toby

Belch (comically postured by T. Doyle Leverett), Andrew, and Feste.

It’s too bad that the ingratiating Peluso, as the real Sebastian, gets

so little time on stage. He does, however, get his chance to croon

with wide eyed delight about his unexpected tryst with Olivia in "The

Lady Must Be Mad." The biggest audience pleaser proved to be "Cake and

Ale," a riotous ensemble number in which each slug of ale demanded

another piece of cake and yet another slug of ale. Choreographer Becky

Timms deserves a brava for her unpretentious but joyously integrated

movement. Costumer Kim Gill has gussied up the performers with smart

and sassy regard for their social status.

It’s good that the team was neither fazed by the numbers nor by the

odds of adapting the 404-year-old play, the last of the Bard’s

so-called "mature" comedies, into a successful musical comedy.

According to a Google search, "Twelfth Night" has served as the

inspiration for five other adaptations alone over the last 44 years,

including the highly successful 1968 Off-Broadway musical "Your Own

Thing," set in the hippie-happening 1960s, the short-lived "Love & Let

Love," also produced in 1968, plus two unsuccessful Broadway musicals

"Music Is" (1974) and "Play On," set in the jazzy 1940s and featuring

the music of Duke Ellington.

Although the musical was first seen in 2002 in a limited Equity

Showcase production by the Prospect Theater Company at the Hudson

Guild Theater (of which Mills and Reichel are founders), Mullins has

beautifully restaged and tweaked the show to virtual perfection. It

should keep regional theaters happy for years. A smart producer should

see the potential of this show for another go Off-Broadway. It’s a

winner.

– Simon Saltzman

Illyria, through December 26, Shakespeare Theater of New

Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. For tickets ($44 to $58) call

973-408-5600.


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