Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Typically, musicals that are part of the Mainstage Series at the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) are either classics from the forties and fifties (Wonderful Town, Brigadoon, The Pajama Game, On The Town) or recent Broadway tuners (The Full Monty, Little Women). This winter, CCM thankfully gives its audience a rarely produced gem from the early 1970s, a musical version of Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona. CCM provides its usual high level of student talent, first-rate design and theatrical flair in this energetic and entertaining production.
This musical adaptation presents the tale of two best friends, Valentine and Proteus, who leave small town Verona for big city Milan. The friends quickly find themselves in complex romantic entanglements involving Julia, whom Proteus has unknowingly left pregnant in Verona, and Sylvia, whom they both fall for in Milan.
Two Gentlemen of Verona has never been considered one of Shakespeare's stronger works, primarily due to its convoluted and scattered plot. John Guare and original Broadway director Mel Shapiro adapted the story for the musical version. They made several changes that benefit the storytelling, but the book remains a liability despite the benefit of using much of Shakespeare's beautiful poetic verse as its dialogue.
Mr. Guare also supplies the lyrics for the show, which sometime reference 20th century concepts and items (a joint, truck driver, locker room). This creates a juxtaposition of period-appropriate dialogue contrasted to "modern" lyrics, similar to 2007 Best Musical Tony Award winning musical Spring Awakening, but not nearly to the same extent. The lyrics too often contain silly or irreverent rhymes that come across as sloppy rather than amusing, and accents likewise sit oddly on the music at times. The show was written in only a few months' time, and this is most evident in the lyric writing. The music supplied by Galt McDermott isn't as emotionally gripping as his work on Hair, or as refined and polished as his score for The Human Comedy, but it is certainly melodically strong and lively. The show is definitely a product of the early '70s, and the funky, rock orchestrations by McDermott and Harold Wheeler fit the tuneful music well. Song highlights include a strong opening number titled "Summer, Summer," the plaintive "I Love My Father," "What Does A Lover Pack," a driving "Love Me" and the rousing political statement "Bring All The Boys Back Home," which seems as appropriate today in relation to the Iraq War as it did in the early 70s regarding Vietnam.
CCM's student performers provide, as usual, outstanding performances all around. Justin Scott Brown (Proteus) delivers Shakespeare's dialogue clearly and with emotional gusto, and he sings strongly throughout. Josh Adam Toney displays well-suited soulful vocals as Valentine. As Julia, Ashley Kate Adams sings delightfully and gives a detailed performance that genuinely conveys both the vulnerability and determination of the character. Lauren Sprague is perfect as the sensual temptress Sylvia, and possesses professional level stage presence. There are fine supporting portrayals turned in as well, notably by Carl Draper (the playfully manipulative Duke), Garett Hawe (a foppish Thurio) and Ryan Breslin (an acrobatic Launce). Andrew Chappelle (Eglamour), James Lee Glatz (Speed) and Alaina Mills (Lucretia) are strong in secondary roles as well. The ensemble members show great dancing skills and non-stop energy.
Guest Director/Choreographer Andrew Palermo is a CCM alum and appeared in this show as an undergrad in 1993. As director, Mr. Palermo uses the performance space well, with his actors using the aisles and even entering the rows, moving past audience members, on occasion. There are inventive touches throughout that make this a hip rendition of the classic tale. In its original Broadway staging, Verona was represented as San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Milan as New York City. Palermo's take is to have Verona be an ivy-covered prep school ala "Gossip Girls" and Milan an ultra modern metropolis. Still, for a show that is known historically as a celebratory romp, the direction seems a bit restrained at times. That minor criticism, thankfully, can't be applied to Palermo's dances, which are vibrant and full of life. The youthful attitude of the Verona student population, as well as the contrasting chic and urban sophistication of Milan, is wonderfully captured in Palermo's choreography. Roger Grodsky leads a brassy 11-piece orchestra with sure-handed confidence.
Set Designer Justin Barisonek supplies a handsome three-tiered set, with Verona clearly shown as a center of academia and Milan as a sleek and contemporary city of commerce. The fun, sexy and attractive costumes are skillfully provided by Rebecca Senske, and the lighting by Joshua A Reaves is first-rate.
Though it may still not be apparent how this show, as fun and playful as it is, beat out Follies for the 1971 Tony Award for Best Musical, Two Gentlemen of Verona is clearly a pleasurable, dynamic and cool musical. CCM meets the high standards that we in Cincinnati have come to expect from their musical productions with this show, thanks to an extremely talented cast, excellent dances and solid design. CCM's production continues through March 8, 2009.-- Scott Cain