Donna Stearns describes her musical take on As You Like It as a "wild romp of sexual exploration." This exploration is neither psychologically deep nor intellectually lofty, but an irreverent, knowing, and playful adaptation that highlights the potent sexuality (gay and straight) of Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy. This is, however, a far cry from the famous Cheek by Jowl version with its all-male cast: Stearns’s piece is far more broadly comic and contemporary in its references, combining Shakespeare’s text with new dialogue and songs that confront the original’s convenient relationships and resolutions, offering a more sexually chaotic and entertaining alternative that never takes itself too seriously. Its informal style and throwaway humor are ideally suited to the intimate studio theatre space that it is currently occupying.
Stearns’s project is an ambitious one, not least as she is the composer, lyricist, musical director, and author (with a little help from Bill). The performers are introduced initially as rowdy B-list actors who are tricked into doing the play under the guise of filming a soap opera called You’re Gonna Like It. In a rare moment of poor judgment, Stearns introduces Jacques (an aloof Ralph Carideo) and two sexy assistants (Beth Dover and Cathrine Munden) as time travellers creating the film -- this subplot, although competently acted, makes little sense and is something of a distraction. But the result is that the "performance" is a spoof of both soap acting (extreme mood changes, looks to camera) and second-rate musical-theatre acting (self-promoting vocal pyrotechnics, chorus enthusiasm even in the deliberately ludicrous costumes), and even the musical genre itself (jaunty showtunes in times of distress and a racy love song, effusively choreographed by Steven Gillenwater, that bypasses all the usual euphemisms with the title "You Make Me Moist."
In the hands of the modestly talented, this could be a recipe for excruciating, inadvertent self-parody. So while the musical numbers and plot twists are often accomplished and shot through with a wicked sense of humor, Stearns was blessed to find a director and cast that boast a collective talent, intelligence, and technical prowess not often seen on a low budget. Director Jason Kendall’s pacy production allowed for the zaniness of farce and skated lightly through throwaway moments of high-school humor, while allowing individual characters to shine. Impressively, he successfully incorporated two genuinely moving moments as Silvius (Brian Whisenant) and Celia (Jeanne Favara) sang the ballad of unrequited love "Midnight Pillow" without a trace of irony. It was a daring moment in a show that spoofs sentimentality, but here it provided a well-judged contrast to all the knowing comedy.
Like the script, many of the performers walked the delicate line between intelligent spoof and tedious overstatement but managed to keep their balance, never milking their moments to the detriment of the show. Jeanne Favara gave some backbone to the often rather vapid role of Celia, Jeffrey Landman’s Oliver went all out as a soap opera baddie, Adrienne Belai was a sexually shameless Phebe, Jonathan Beatrice gave an unusual spin to the character of Touchstone, and Lela Frechette -- well, let’s just say that a love of greenery isn’t all the Duke discovers about himself in the forest. Kenny Wade Marshall turned in a hilarious set of wacky cameos as Old Adam, a Castrato, and the leather-clad toyboy of Duke Frederick (Anson Hedges). But the musical -- like the play -- stands or falls with Orlando and Rosalind. Frederick Hamilton and Beatriz Abella gave performances that were both spontaneous and accomplished; their strong voices, infectious energy and assured stage presence made them a perfect fit for the demands of their roles and of the show. Shakespeare’s Rosalind has often been a defining milestone from which classical actresses have moved on to distinguished careers; Abella’s luminous presence and impressive technical skill make one hope that the same will be true of her.
Music and lyrics: 2
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Copyright 2002 Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen