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A CurtainUp Review
Prospect Theater Company Celebrates Its 10th Anniversary With a Reprise of Its "Musical Collaboration" With the Bard

Some musicals grow better with time, and Peter Mills and Cara Reichel's reworking of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. When Simon Saltzman reviewed the regional premiere at the New Jersey Shakespeare Theater in 2004, he hoped audiences would have a chance to see it in some theater, perhaps Off-Broadway. That opportunity has now come since the Mills and Reichel's Prospect Theater is reprising it to celebrate the opening of its 10th anniversary season, in their current home the Hudson Guild Theater.

Although Shakespeare's plays have been effectively adapted to musicals before they often leave much baggage in the wings, but not so Illyria. Duke Orsino (Brandon Andrus) and Olivia (Laura Shoop) are both present on the mad-cap island of Illyria. In fact, none of the chief characters of the play are missing.

If Mills has managed quite adroitly to fit the play to his adaptation, he has mostly succeeded through 18 delicious songs. Some like "Malvolio's Tango" are incredibly witty others, like" Illyria" play out like long arias. The powerful "Save One", with Orsino, Viola, and Olivia shown in their isolated space, embodying a painful love triangle is a kind bittersweet ode to the recalcitrant nature of romantic love. One would have to be a stone not to be moved by this poignant number. Though Mills had some difficulty in transferring all the connective tissue from Shakespeare's original plot to his work, he makes almost everything gel and creates a haunting atmosphere.

The acting of the current cast is uneven, with the best performances by the supporting characters. Jimmy Ray Bennett's Malvolio is the quintessential killjoy and his famous entrance in yellow-gartered stockings is blazingly funny and his prison scene with Feste is maddeningly right. Dan Sharkey,as Toby, Ryan Dietz, as Andrew, Tina Stafford, as Maria and Jim Poulos as Feste are all well-cast. They brightly ratchet up the comedy in the irrepressible" Cake and Ale "” in Act 1 and return to the number (with the ensemble) as a rousing finale.

While it is fine for an adaptation to take some poetic license with Shakespeare‘s work, I found the musical lost some of it serious texture by Mills' having Malvolio change his rigid, stiff-backed ways and joining in the final celebration. It made for a somewhat trite denouementt.

Under Cara Reichel's guiding hand, the madcap characters come sharply into focus, and the cross-currents in the plot add vital tension and meaning. While this musical adaptation can't realize all of the original play's Illyria is an inspired piece of musical theater that fits well into this intimate space.

Links to other Prospect Theater Musicals:
The Pursuit of Persephone
The Flood/Reichel
Iron Curtain/Music

Written by Peter Mills
Directed by Cara Reichel
Cast: Brandon Andrus (Duke Orsino), Jimmy Ray Bennett (Malvolio), Mitch Dean (Sebastian), Ryan Dietz (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Jessica Grove (Viola), Andrew Miramontes (Antonio), Jim Poulos (Feste), Dan Sharkey (Sir Toby Belch), Laura Shoop (Olivia), Tina Stafford (Maria), Lauren Adams (Ensemble), John Mervini (Ensemble), Jed Peterson (Ensemble), Megan Stern (Ensemble).
Sets: Erica Beck Hemminger
Costumes: Naomi Wolff
Sound: Kris Pierce
Lighting: Ji-youn Chang
Choreographer: Christine O‘Grady
Orchestrations & Music Director: Daniel Feyer Stage Manager: Kat West
Running time: 2 hours; 15 m Prospect Theater Company at Hudson Guild Theatre, 441 East 26th Street. Phone: 212/352-3101
From 10/18/08; Closing 11/16/08.
Thursday through Saturday @ 8pm; Sunday @ 3pm.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on October 24th press performance.
inutes plus 15 minute intermission.
Musical Numbers: Illyria, How These Things Start, What Shall I Do?, Silly Little Syllogisms, Olivia, The Ring, Cakes and Ale, Patience, The Man is Mine, We Men, The Love Letter, Undone, Save One, Malvolio's Tango, Whoever You Are, The Duel, The Lunatic, The Lady Must Be Mad, Finale.

Simon Saltzman's 2004 review of the show in New Jersey

Lovely Isle.
Some Years Ago I Anchored There A While.
Something In The Air There
Must Have An Odd Effect,
For Ev'ry Kind Of Idle Fancy
Grows Unchecked In Illyria…

---Feste's sung opening tableau, which is followed by (spoken) Home to the greatest fools on earth! Of course, not all of them are professionals such as myself. But if you'll give audience, I'll unfold you a tale concerning two of our foremost amateurs…
Elena Shaddow as Viola, disguised as her brother Sebastian, Maria Couch as Lady Olivia (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Recently married to each other Princeton graduates Cara Reichel and Peter Mills evidently didn't care or didn't know the number of times that William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night had been previously adapted as a musical. Happily this history did not prevent one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies from getting a brand new and entirely first rate musical treatment from these co-habiting collaborators. The almost constant flow of melodic music and witty lyrics all but dance with an ingratiating ebullience throughout the show. The performances, under the direction of Paul Mullins, are not only uniformly winning but many come within show-stopping brilliance.

Essentially the book by Reichel and Mills and the music and lyrics by Mills validate the source material. This is an entertainment (perfect for the holidays) that actively flaunts with great charm and unbridled esprit the original title's tag …or What You Will. But the team has also respected Will's will by honoring the original setting and time period (more or less). Remaining true to this famously titillating celebration of love, propelled by its now familiar devices of mistaken identity, separated twins, and gender deception, the team has slightly tempered but not totally excised the darker aspects of the plot. No cause for alarm, however, as even their lightened and brightened up version retains the play's inference of madness and its unconventional investigation of "true" love.

Mottled high white walls and faux arches flank an upstage spiral staircase. Above two slightly raised playing areas is an open alcove that supports seven musicians. Isn't this just what you would expect to find in the center of Illyria, a place (handsomely designed by Michael Schweikardt) where the by-love-consumed inhabitants are less likely to orate than they are to sing of their predicaments and passions. So what else is new, you may ask? Plenty. In the one most notable change from Shakespeare's text, Viola uses her brother's name and not Cesario, thereby adding to the compounding confusion of who's who.

It is for Feste (Joel Blum), Olivia's favored jester and soon ours, to preside over the narrative, but he is entrusted initially with the prologue and montage in which he introduces the play's characters and notably the comely twins Viola (Elena Shaddow) and Sebastian (Chris Peluso), who have been separated by a shipwreck. Wearing an oversized colorful patchwork coat, Feste adorns the action with an obvious disregard for haute couture but with a real flair for juggling. Blum earns our whole hearted approval with a motor-mouth delivery of "Silly Little Syllogisms," a hilarious patter song from the Gilbert and Sullivan school, and later with "The Lunatic," a nostalgically choreographed vaudeville number that allows him to perform a delightful soft-shoe enhanced exorcism over the madness-inflicted Malvolio (Ames Adamson). Blum's exuberance is such that he inadvertently chipped off a huge chunk of scenery with his foot on opening night. Without losing a beat he picked it up, used it as a mirror, and flung it into the wings.

Adamson is no slouch either as a top banana among many, as he invests "Malvolio's Tango" with more traces of Theda Bara than Valentino. Beauty and talent are beautifully wedded in the case of Shaddow, whose petite figure is buoyed by a sturdy voice and a winsome presence. Shaddow's rapier duel with the foppish Humpty-Dumpty-ish Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Benjamin Eakeley) scores a comical 10. Maria Couch also gets high marks, as Lady Olivia, the rich countess in mourning who gets over it quickly enough. As sung to Viola, Couch's big number "Undone" is a torchy evening gloves-removing howler that invites memories of Rita Hayworth in "Gilda."

Despite the score's occasional nod to vintage operetta duets as in "How These Things Start," and the slyly insinuating "We Men" sung by the love-smitten Viola and the vain but sentimental Duke Orsino (Steve Wilson), the songs take a fresh and frisky approach to traditional theater music. Wilson is not about to let anyone steal all the laughs as he creates a uniquely gracious yet stuck-on-himself Orsino, with the tail of his red velvet cloak obediently trailing a few paces behind him. Wilson's savviest musical declaration is "Whoever You Are," in which he woos Shaddow without regard for her sex. "Save One," a grandly melodic quartet for Olivia, Orsino, Viola and Feste provides a memorable close for Act I.

There's even a touch of Kurt Weill to be savored in "The Man is Mine" sung in counterpoint by the lusty Maria, Olivia's maid and Sir Toby Belch (comically postured by T. Doyle Leverett), Andrew and Feste. It's too bad that the ingratiating Peluso, as the real Sebastian, gets so little time on stage. He does, however, get his chance to croon with wide eyed delight about his unexpected tryst with Olivia in "The Lady Must Be Mad." The biggest audience pleaser proved to be "Cake and Ale," a riotous and happily reprised ensemble number in which each slug of ale demanded another piece of cake and yet another slug of ale. Choreographer Becky Timms deserves a bravo for her unpretentious but joyously integrated movement. Costumer Kim Gill has gussied up the performers with smart and sassy regard for their social status.

It's good that the team was neither fazed by the numbers nor by the odds of adapting the 404 year-old play, the last of the Bard's so-called "mature" comedies, into a successful musical comedy. According to a Google search, Twelfth Night has served as the inspiration for five other adaptations alone over the last 44 years, including the highly successful 1968 Off-Broadway musical Your Own Thing, set in the hippie-happening 1960s, the short-lived "Love & Let Love,""also produced in 1968, plus two unsuccessful Broadway musicals Music Is (1974) and Play On, set in the jazzy 1940s and featuring the music of Duke Ellington.

Although the musical was first seen in 2002 in a limited Equity Showcase production by the Prospect Theater Company at the Hudson Guild Theater (of which Mills and Reichel are founders), Mullins has beautifully restaged and tweaked the show to virtual perfection. It should keep regional theaters happy for years. A smart producer should see the potential of this show for another go Off-Broadway. It's a winner.

ILLIRIA, adapted by Cara Reichel and Peter Mills from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
Directed by Paul Mullins
Cast: Joel Blum, Steve Wilson, Maria Couch, T. Doyle Leverett, Ames Adamson, Kristie Dale Sanders, Elena Shaddow, Chris Reluso, Benjamin Eakeley, Darren Matthias, Howard Emanuel, Peter Maris, Suzanne Houston, Justine Williams.
The Orchestra: F. Wade Russo (Musical Director), Elizabeth Schulze, Jennifer Gravenstine, Paul Ivory, Mike Brown, Tom Piercy, Mary E. Rodriguez
Set Design: Michael Schweikardt
Costume Design: Kim Gill
Lighting Design: Shelly Savel
Orchestrations: Daniel Feyer
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes including a 15 minute intermission Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, N.J. 07940. 973 - 408 - 5600 From December 3, opening December 4, and continuing through Sunday, December 26.
Tuesdays at 7:30 PM; Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM and 7 PM.
Tickets: $44 to $58 Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on December 4, 2004 performance.
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