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A CurtainUp Review
What You Will
by Les Gutman
If music be the food of love, play on...
--Orsino, Twelfth Night, I.i.
...I can sing
And speak to him in many sorts of music...
Mason Pettitt and Brandy Zarle (Photo: Peter Berson)
In the vast Shakespearean canon, there is hardly a work that inspires one to song more than Twelfth Night, or What You Will. So it is not surprising that the ever-inspired folks at Moonwork, this year having chosen this comedy for their annual experiment with the Bard, decided what it needed was musicalization.
This is, of course, not the first time such has been attempted. In recent years, Broadway has seen a version utilizing the music of Duke Ellington (entitled Play On, linked below) and another (also linked below) featuring a score by Jeanine Tesori that was released on CD and nominated for a Tony. But what Moonwork has attempted is more ambitious: original composition (by Andrew Sherman and Rusty McGee), set to Shakespeare's words -- not just those intended as song, but many of the play's most familiar passages.
Consistent with its usual mission, Moonwork has also rethought the play's context -- resetting it in the South Pacific during World War II. Thus, the play opens with a newsreel showing the U.S. military at war and on R&R, and it is in this way that we first encounter Orsino (Mason Pettit), reïmagined as a Naval war hero called, appropriately, the Duke.
What's beautiful about Moonwork's conceits is that they are not gimmicks that supply off-kilter window dressing for otherwise unchanged productions, but rather that they take on a force of their own, as prevailing metaphors for every aspect of the play. This does not mean, however, that they permit (significant) violence to the play itself. Walking this tightrope relies on Artistic Director Gregory Wolfe's fastidious, if no doubt collaboratively-supported, vision.
So here's the deal: the play takes place at Club Illyria, a bar frequented by off-duty soldiers and sailors. Viola (Brandy Zarle) and her twin brother Sebastian (Craig D. Pearlberg), a sailor, have been separated and lost at sea, Viola has been saved and brought ashore at Illyria where she disguises herself as a sailor and meets Orsino. She has a crush on him; he has a crush on Olivia (Margaret Nichols), the owner of Club Illyria, and Viola (now known as Cesario) becomes his Jean Alden of sorts. There is also a supercilious club manager, Malevolio (Jason Cicci) and a brassy, New York-ish hostess, Maria (Julie Dingman). Shortly, we will also encounter the play's comic core in Olivia's inebriate relative, Sir Toby Belch (Ron McClary) and his goof of a sidekick, also infatuated with Olivia, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Tom Shillue), a pair who give Laurel and Hardy a run for their money. The group of regulars is rounded out with Feste (Rusty McGee), a piano player who also assumes the role of the clown in the original text, a priest with an Irish brogue, Topaz (Chad Jacobson), and assorted other soldiers, sailors, MP's, a bartender.and of course gals. (Sebastian, meanwhile, is in the company of Antonio (John Roque), a captain in the Japanese navy.)
The usual fun, games, trickery and romantic anxiety proceed in more or less the usual fashion, although with clever reconceptions (and a pastiche of more or less period songs, most accompanied on an upright piano found against one wall, one particularly nice one relying on the juke box) all along the way. When Malevolio finds the "note" from Olivia, it is in the form of sheet music which he dutifully plays and sings. This will lead to a return in which he appears not just in yellow stockings and cross-garters, but resplendent yellow tails as well, not alone but backed up by three similarly-hued chorines. When Sir Andrew faces off with Cesario over Olivia, it is in a boxing ring.
Most of the cast, and especially the women, sing exceptionally well. Ditto for their dancing. McClary and Shillue are priceless as the comic pair, and their singing reaches its zenith when they are joined by McGee in a barbershop quartet number in which the trio is called upon to render all four parts. There's a fine big production number in a "swing" style at the top of the second act (five extremely well choreographed couples).
The acting is a bit of a mixed bag: the smiley Mason Pettit provides an interesting take on Orsino, Dengman's Maria is memorable and Craig Pearlberg is particularly adept and affecting as Sebastian. Jason Cicci's Malevolio, despite good moments, leaves a lingering feeling there's more opportunity there than he is exploiting. The biggest problem, however, is that the line readings leave a great deal to be desired, and this has a negative affect on accessibility. There's plenty to praise in Mr. Wolfe's direction, but a little more time on the basics would have paid off.
There's one further fault that seems almost conceptual even as it is affected by the above: the production essentialy assumes the audience is familiar with the play. Newcomers to the material will likely be left quite in the fog, since a great deal of what makes the production enjoyable is appreciating, and laughing at, what they have done to the original. The songs are often very clever, but, truth be told, they don't always win high marks for aiding the story-telling. So if bringing the unïnitiated or the young folk along, a bit of advance homework would not be a bad thing.
Lowell Pettit has done a nice job on the set, a slightly faded club with Art Deco influences. Oana Botez-Ban's costumes hit their mark (as do the women's hairstyles), and David Sherman's lighting certainly does the trick. One thing that makes this production pleasurable, and that lets us forgive its soft spots, is what a good time everyone seems to be having. Jolly Robin indeed.
Review of Play On
Review of Twelfth Night
Reviews of prior Moonwork productions: Richard III, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet
WHAT YOU WILL (A Musical Adaptation of Twelfth Night)
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Wolfe
with Mason Pettit, Brandy Zarle, Craig D. Pearlberg, Margaret Nichols, Jason Cicci, Julie Dingman, Rusty McGee, Ron McClary, Tom Shillue, Chad Jacobson, Isaiah DiLorenzo, Erik Hayden, Jeffrey Stephens, Timothy Quinlan, Jena Necrason, Robin Levine, Michelle Nessie Fernandez, John Roque and Joe Reina
Set Design: Lowell Pettit
Costume Design: Oana Botez-Ban
Lighting Design: David Sherman
Composers: Andrew Sherman and Rusty McGee
Musical Director: Rusty McGee
Choreographer: Lars Rosager
Fight Choreographer: Chris Burmeister
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission
A production of Moonwork
Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street (Avs. A/B) Telephone (212) 279-4200
Opening April 5, 2001 closing April 21, 2001
Tues. - Sun. @8, Sun. @3
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 4/3/01 performance