At the end of the performance of Illyria, it was unclear who was more grateful -- the cast for the lively reception or the audience for a memorable evening. What was clear was that everyone was a winner -- including William Shakespeare.
In his adaptation of Twelfth Night, Peter Mills (book, music, lyrics) has retained the key characters, plot, and many lines from the original while creating a brand-new musical comedy. True, some of the darkness of the original is skated over (Feste and Malvolio especially come out more broadly comic) but Mills retains the dramatic richness of the play’s various social groups and their interrelationships. The music and lyrics jump unapologetically between styles, from Olivia’s amusingly operatic, über-tragic lament to the slapstick vaudeville numbers performed below stairs. The book, too, is intelligent and witty, committed to the story but managing to point up the ludicrousness of the plot and of stage conventions (as Malvolio picks up the fateful note, the hidden Sir Andrew interjects "please let him read it aloud").
In Cara Reichel’s production, the staging of the new prolog (Viola and Sebastian on the ship before the storm) was a little cliched and uninspired; after this, the show took off and Reichel skilfully orchestrated the different moods and playing styles. She made full use of Scott Aronow’s two-story set (effectively lit by Adam Gabel): a staircase leading to a raised walkway with ropes, barrels, and swathes of fabric lending a nautical air. While failing to convince in the upper-class scenes, it was a highly functional set that allowed actors to hang from scaffolding poles, make dramatic descents, and languish on the steps; it also helped Reichel to stage crossover scenes so as to show the audience Sebastian and Viola at the same time. The open space at the front allowed freedom of movement, and choreographer Christina Gelsone created some technically modest but highly entertaining and effective routines.
The cast turned in vital, intellligent performances both in dialog and song. David Kaley’s costumes were tailored to character, not period: thus Viola, Sebastian, and Olivia were contemporary/Elizabethan, while the vaudeville characters wore colorful 19th-century suits. Kate Bradner (Viola) and Courter Simmons (Sebastian) were unusually convincing as the identical twins, helped by costumes and staging but also by a similar grounded gracefulness. Wistful, practical, and comic, Bradner successfully carried the emotional weight of the plot. Kate MacKenzie’s Olivia made an amusing transition from aloof self-importance to shameless seduction, while Rich Affanato’s Orsino was hilarious because totally serious in his narcissistic self-obsession, interacting with conductor/musical director Daniel Feyer, whose orchestra playfully indulged and undermined him. Leon Land Gersing (Sir Toby), Jason Mills (Sir Andrew), Arik Luck (Feste), and Sarah Corey (Maria) made an entertainining team, more exuberant than bawdy, milking every comic drop from the drinking song "Cakes and Ale." And as Malvolio, Ames Adamson minced his way around the stage, his British accent and Gilbert and Sullivan doggerel labeling him a classy but ridiculous snob. Even Simmons and Matthew Alexander in the smaller roles of Sebastian and Antonio brought energy and panache to their time onstage.
An accomplished and entertaining work in its own right, this production of Illyria also captured the comic and lyrical essence of Twelfth Night more effectively than many more faithful versions of the play. Whether a fan of musicals or Shakespeare, do yourself a favor and go.
Book, lyrics, and music: 2
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Copyright 2002 Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen