The starting-off point of Shakespeare's Loves Labour's Lost is impossible (men getting together with the express purpose of choosing learning over love), and the track record of Shakespearean musicals is not auspicious. But for the New York premiere of Kenneth Mitchell's adaptation, known as Loves Labour's Lost: The Musical, the American Globe Theatre had the great good fortune to be showcasing the music of Bob McDowell, and a cast of good men and better women.
LLL: The Musical is good enough as Shakespeare, but it's terrific as a musical. McDowell's score shows an understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare, '30s musical comedy, and exploring character in songs that should have a life outside the play they're in. The silly set-up is winningly explicated in "From Today," where the King of Navarre (Graham Stevens) assembles his cronies: Dumaine, a dancer from Hollywood (Geoffrey Barnes); Longaville, an artist (Ross Stoner); and Berowne, a Scotsman complete with kilt (Trent Dawson), and they agree to his proposition that there be, as the sign on stage proclaims, No Women Allowed. Well, except for the previously planned visit of the Princess of France and her court.
And while the men had a good sense of the fun that directors John Basil and Kenneth Noel Mitchell encouraged (no lack of slapstick and double-takes), the women gently, casually, and exquisitely took control of the men, the music, and the play. The Princess (Kelley McKinnon), the aviatrix Rosaline (Alyson Reim), the '30s Hollywood blonde Katherine (Carey Urban), and the classy brunette Maria (Kimberly Kay) sing "A Cautionary Tale," admonishing each other to "never take a man at his word," and it's clear the men are goners. Katherine, Maria, and Rosaline each have enchanting (albeit short) songs that whetted the appetite for more music, and more of their charm. And there's the rub -- this musical's music is so evocative and flat-out good that it sometimes felt as though there's too much Loves Labour's Lost and not enough The Musical.
So when Dawson sang "I'm in Love!" full of confusion and surprise, or Reim beautifully performed "Don't Come Near My Heart," a song that could become a cabaret standard, there was nothing Lost about it. The men closed Act I with the declaration "C'est la Guerre" and the women opened Act II with "How to Handle a Man," and characters and audience were both well-served. And with the plot's pairing off of characters established, the men's comic number "Russians Four" was beautifully set off by the women's misleading the men to make fools of them. But gosh, there's an awful lot of talk in between.
The setting has been changed to a Spanish villa in 1932 (set designed by James A. Bazewicz), most likely to accommodate the Don Armado of Justin Ray Thompson, in a gem of a comic performance. He was ably matched by Elizabeth Keefe's Jacquenetta, whom McDowell endows with a fine musical number of her own. Mark Hankla's lighting was almost cinematic, putting singers in spotlights and coloring the action for comic effect, and Terry Leong's costumes were lush and glamorous. There was a recent, less-than-successful film version of LLL that used a '30s setting and known '30s songs, but faltered by not going all the way with music or Shakespeare. Remember, it's Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, not Shakespeare's. Note to McDowell -- this is your show, make it yours even more.
Also with Andrew Thacher, Karen Macleod, Basil Rodericks, Rainard Rachele, Julia Cook, and J.B. McLendon.
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Copyright 2003 David Mackler