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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Illyria: Musical Twelfth Night Provides Grand Finale for
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey Season

Illyria
Benjamin Eakeley, T. Doyle Leverett and Joel Blum
Once it hits its stride, Illyria, the newest stage musical version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, is a farcical delight. It is making its regional theatre debut at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

There is a truly ensemble cast, and each principal takes full advantage of multiple opportunities to shine. Elena Shaddow sings beautifully, and is a believably warm and sympathetic Viola. Stranded alone in Illyria, Viola is impersonating her lost at sea brother Sebastian, so as not to fall prey to predators. Shaddow is the “straight man” around whom the farce revolves, and she is superb in performing this task.

Maria Couch is Olivia, the countess in mourning for her brother. As she falls in love with the faux Sebastian, her classic musical theatre stylings applied to farcically dramatic Broadway style show tunes are among Illyria’s highlights.

Steve Wilson’s duke Orsino walks the line of farce in his self-absorbed courtship of Olivia. In doing so, Wilson is an appropriately comic figure while preserving the ability to be believable in his at first confused, and then accepting, passion for the person whom he knows as Sebastian. His second act ballad, “Whoever You Are,” is one of the best of the evening.

Chris Peluso, as the real Sebastian, provides a terrific deadpan response to Orsino’s blandishments and then strongly and divertingly sings the lively “The Lady Must Be Mad.”

Much, if not the largest amount, of stage time goes to the play’s clowns. It is difficult to complain when they are as terrific and terrifically successful as the ones assembled here. Joel Blum is simply superb as the jester. His lithe movement, deft lyric and quizzical line readings are delightfully delivered with deceptive ease. The production is woefully short of dance, and I wish that Blum’s wonderfully eccentric dance style which earned him a Tony Award nomination for Show Boat was utilized here.

Along with the jester, the comedic members of Olivia’s household are her profligate uncle, Sir Toby (T. Doyle Leverett); her maid Maria (Kristie Dale Sanders), who has Sir Toby in her sights; her pompous steward, Malvolio (Ames Adamson); and would be suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek, (Benjamin Eakeley). Wonderful farceurs all. Leverett conveys the misplaced confidence of a not so master manipulator. Sanders is vocally impressive singing “The Man is Mine.” Adamson is bang on John Cleese in pompous idiot mode. Eakeley is the perfect fool.

The music and libretto are by fledgling Peter Mills (Mills and wife Cara Reichel are credited as co-adapters). It is an impressive accomplishment that offers much to please. However, there are not insignificant problems here that mostly plague the first act. The work has been advertised as a contemporary “operetta.” For much of the first act, it comes across as a chamber opera. This impression is reinforced by Shelly Sabel’s arrangements (piano, violin, cello, bass, woodwinds and percussion) for the fine seven-piece orchestra. There is a dullish chamber opera feel to the scenes involving the lovers for much of the first act. All of the fun and interest reside in the farceurs. When Maria Couch’s Olivia sings a 1930s-like torch song take-off, we are jarred because it seems out of synch with the style the show has established. When she follows up with another Broadway style show tune (I found its melodic line to be reminiscent of Charles Strouse’s “Little Girls” from Annie), it starts to become apparent that this is not a chamber opera at all. From here on, we are treated to an anything goes, gag-laden, farcical, pastiche musical. Yes, the music can be derivative (Mills seems to be another son of Sondheim), and the humorous and enjoyable lyrics are not quite top shelf, but once the chamber music doldrums are shed, Illyria is most entertaining.

On first hearing, “Silly Little Syllogisms” seemed in need of more cleverness and less complication despite Baum’s excellent rendition of it. Although the staging and performances (our terrific farceurs again) deservedly make the comic roundelay “Cakes and Ale” the musical comic highpoint, this song needs more complication and lyric development if it is to be so often repeated.

I did not identify any lines directly from Shakespeare (although some lines are, at the least, close). Most importantly, Mills' dialogue is felicitous, his storytelling clear, and his humor, at least in the hands of the cast at hand, extremely effective.

The opening song, “The Shipwreck,” sets the scene dully and conventionally. Yes, it is about disaster and separation, but with Illyria’s pratfalls, pantaloons, fools and comic asides to the orchestra and audience, who cares? Illyria cries out for a new opening number, a fabulously tuneful and funny production song along the lines of “Comedy Tonight.” It is so obviously needed that the reason for its not being there would seem to be the anticipation that a lunk-head critic might cite it as derivative of Sondheim.

Michael Schweikardt’s effective, playable false proscenium set is essentially on two levels (joined by a central spiral staircase). There is a prosceniumed box behind the actors on the upper level for the orchestra.

The costumes are credited to Frank Champa and Kim Gill. They are mostly felicitous. However, Olivia’s black mourning dress is overly ornate. It makes her appear older than the other lovers as well as a refugee from another production. And until Illyria becomes the breakout vaudevillian farce that it seems to be striving to be, Aguecheek’s burlesque suit and Malvolio’s green pantaloons are too over the top.

After a slow start, director Paul Mullins delivers a polished, lively and most entertaining production, eliciting terrific performances from an exceptionally strong cast.

It is a shame that Illyria is only scheduled through December 26 (see performance schedule below) as it is an ideal family show for the Christmas-New Years vacation period. Let us be grateful that for the next four weeks, Illyria will brighten our holiday season.

Illyria continues performances through December 26, 2004 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, N.J. 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online: www.shakespearenj.org Performance Schedule: Tues. 7:30 PM; Wed. – Sat. 8 PM; Sun. 7 PM; Sat. & Sun. Mats. 2 PM; No performances 12/24 & 25; Extra Performances.: Wed. & Thurs. 12/22 & 12/23 at 3 PM.

Illyria, adapted from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by Peter Mills and Carol Reichel. Book, music and lyrics by Peter Mills; directed by Paul Mullins

Cast:
Feste, A Jester .......... Joel Blum
Orsino, Duke Of Illyria .......... Steve Wilson
Olivia, A Countess .......... Maria Couch
Sir Toby, Her Uncle .......... T. Doyle Leverett
Malvolio, Her Steward……..............Ames Adamson
Maria, Her Maid .......... Kristie Dale Sanders
Viola, Twin Sister Of Sebastian .......... Elena Shaddow
Sebastian, Her Twin Brother .......... Chris Peluso
Aguecheek, Suitor To Olivia .......... Benjamin Eakeley
Antonio, A Pirate .......... Darren Matthias
Servants .......... Howard Emanuel, Peter Maris, Suzanne Houston, Justine Williams


Photo: Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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