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Illyria

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Illyria
Brandon Andrus and Jessica Grové
Photo by Richard Termine

The arrival of a new Peter Mills-Cara Reichel musical is usually a cause for celebration. The same is not necessarily true for the return of an old one. Mills and Reichel's Prospect Theater Company has just opened a new revival of the team's Illyria at the Hudson Guild Theatre, and like the company's remount of The Flood two years ago, the most this show manages is to prove how far its young creators have come since they did it the first time around.

Lacking both the effortlessly intricate wordplay and the old-school Broadway tunefulness that Mills made his trademarks with musicals such as The Pursuit of Persephone and Iron Curtain, Illyria is so dreary and turgid an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, it often feels like you'll need 12 nights to get through it. Other musicals, such as 1968's Your Own Thing, Andrew Sherman and Rusty Magee's 2001 Off-Broadway What You Will, and even the 2005 Broadway jukebox musical All Shook Up, have made the same play sing far more convincingly.

It's easy to understand why Twelfth Night so attracts musical makers. Its relatively simple story is rife with relationship entanglements, most of which derive from the young woman Viola masquerading as her twin brother, Sebastian, who she believes died at sea, but who eventually turns up alive and with Viola in the island kingdom of Illyria. There are so many possibilities, all explored: Viola's pining for her "master," Duke Orsino; Orsino's longing for the ever-in-mourning countess Olivia; Olivia's growing affection for Viola; then Sebastian's return, causing everyone to believe something different (and uncomplimentary) about his or her beloved.

Illyria, however, reveals little more about author Mills (who, with director Reichel, adapted the show) than that when the show premiered in 2002, he was still searching for his singular style. Viola (the always-bewitching Jessica Grové) sings in some seven songs in Act I, all blandly beautiful romantic reminiscences of one sort or another. Orsino (Brandon Andrus) gets several functionally identical attempts to portray his character's emotional callousness. Olivia (Laura Shoop) gets the most variety, from bemoaned wailing to belted wooing.

Most of the score is mired in this kind of soupiness. Though Twelfth Night is far from Shakespeare's most lyrical comedy, its dialogue generally speaks more directly from the heart than do Mills's songs and speeches. Only the low-comedy numbers, for the scheming sideline folk like Olivia's confidante Maria (Tina Stafford), her own secret inamorato Sir Toby Belch (Dan Sharkey), and the fey Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Ryan Dietz), are memorable, and then seldom for the right reasons: "The Man Is Mine" and "The Duel" are vapidly playful musical scenes, and "Cakes and Ale" is Mills's unforgivable but unremarkable attempt at addiction inducing, repeating its relentless recipe for drunken revelry seemingly 800 times from first hearing to last.

It's mostly in the cavorting of the fool Feste (Jim Poulos), the de facto narrator, that you hear hints of the more adventurous Mills to come. Feste's "Silly Little Syllogisms" with Olivia is a rapid-fire tongue-twister, and his "The Lunatic" with Oliva's malevolent servant Malvolio (Jimmy Ray Bennett) is a one-man almost-comic roundelay. If Poulos could learn to make himself heard without a body mike pasted two inches from his mouth, these numbers might have more impact still. (In fairness, Poulos is not the only cast member with a projection problem.)

But with Shakespeare's wry whimsy almost entirely absent and Reichel's staging far more leaden and unimaginative than has been her recent wont, Mills's few attempts at filigree aren't enough to keep things buoyant. Naomi Wolff's imaginative costumes help, as do Christine O'Grady's lightly peppy choreography and Daniel Feyer's spirited orchestrations and musical direction, but the onus is primarily on the cast, and most of them just aren't up to the challenge.

The exceptions are Grové, who's as delightful as she can be within the strictures of her languorously limited material; Shoop, who except for her improbably festive first mourning dress makes a strongly elegant showing as a woman ready to rejoin life; and Andrew Miramontes, who makes a solid impression as the pirate who rescues Sebastian. An almost complete lack of personality hampers everyone else in the company.

It doesn't do much good to the show, either. Musical lovers can find some solace in the fact that since Illyria's first writing, Mills has found his voice. The problem isn't that this show doesn't have that voice - it's that it doesn't have any voice at all.


Illyria
Through November 16
Hudson Guild Theatre, 441 West 26th Street between 9th and 10th
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Prospect Theater Company