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
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
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
– Simon Saltzman
Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. For tickets ($44 to $58) call
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.