Don’t worry, you won’t need to brush up your Shakespeare to enjoy the charms of “Sing for Your Shakespeare,” a pleasant, easy-going musical revue now playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through a recently announced extension until June 28.
Based on an original idea and production that was part of the 92nd Street Y’s popular “Lyrics and Lyricists” series in New York, the show gathers together a number of songs that were inspired by Shakespeare’s plays, including compositions from famous Broadway musicals such as “West Side Story” or “Kiss Me Kate,” as well as musical pieces created for motion pictures and jazz combos.
The production’s creators include Deborah Grace Winer, the artistic director of the “Lyrics and Lyricists” concert series, Wayne Barker, who serves as music director and arranger, and Mark Lamos, the Artistic Director of the Westport Playhouse and the director of “Sing for Your Shakespeare.” They have adapted their original presentation at the Y, where it followed a lecture/song format, for the Playhouse’s more theatrical setting, where the emphasis is definitely on the music, with fully staged and choreographed numbers performed by a talented six-person cast several of whom seem to be actually enjoying themselves.
Surprisingly though the show has little to say about Shakespeare himself, even though Lamos has directed some breathtaking productions from the Bard’s canon at Hartford Stage and Lincoln Center Theatre, to name just a few. What “Sing for Your Shakespeare” really demonstrates is how frequently composers and lyricists have turned to Shakespeare for inspiration. But Lamos and company have only scratched the surface of the breadth and range of such adaptations. While they do include a lovely madrigal at the top of the show written to accommodate Shakespeare’s words, the show does not even allude to the many operas or song cycles that have been developed from the plays or the sonnets. Of course, such a work cannot be expected to provide an extremely comprehensive overview and try to remain entertaining, but particularly upon Barker’s suggestion they have managed to include quite a few pieces created for the world jazz.
Although the evening’s script allows the audience to know what shows most of the numbers are from and the composers are listed in the program, no context is provided as to how the songs connect with Shakespeare’s original work. Instead we are treated to a procession of songs that bear little relation to one another, except for song sequences that feature numbers from the same show. But even in those cases, the numbers don’t necessarily flow together particularly well. For example, there are four consecutive numbers from Rodgers & Hart’s “The Boys From Syracuse,” adapted from Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” that really don’t shine any light on how they fit into the original Shakespeare plot or even how they work together in the subsequent musical. Actually it is the adaptation of some of the sonnets which demonstrate a great connection to Shakespeare as they tend to contain more of Will’s original words, particularly some jazz pieces written by likes of the team of Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn and another by the late great jazz stylist John Dankworth, both inspired by some of the sonnets. Along those lines is another Ellington-Strayhorn number, “Star Crossed Lovers,” clearly a reference to “Romeo and Juliet” that is found in Ellington’s “Such Sweet Thunder.”
In addition to song, the evening does contain several specifically humorous numbers, not necessarily all based upon Shakespeare’s comedies. A Frank Loesser song, “Hamlet,” from the film “Red Hot and Blue,” features the entire cast in a four-minute Tin Pan Alley rendition of the entire plot from the play about the melancholy Dane that rivals the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s hilarious take on that tragedy for brevity and wit. Another number features a surprise appearance by the Bard himself, in the person of the diminutive actor/singer Stephen DeRosa (Eddie Cantor on "Boardwalk Empire"), who pops up in complete Elizabethan regalia to lead the three women in the cast in the amusing “Shakespeare Song” from a British television program, “Horrible Histories.”
In addition to the briefest of transitions between various sections of the show, there are a few narrative moments including a recitation of the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech from “As You Like It” or a few rowdy lines from one of the attempted seduction scenes from “The Taming of the Shrew” between Petruchio and Kate. They contribute to the essence of Shakespeare missing from other aspects of the production, but their exact purpose is unclear.
Lamos and his associates have assembled a game cast with the well-known cabaret artist Karen Akers and Broadway song and dance master Darius de Haas being the two most recognizable names. In addition to the previously mentioned DeRosa, other ensemble members include Goodspeed and “Mama Mia” veteran Laurie Wells and two up and coming musical theater stars, the tall, lanky Constantine Germanacos and the sweet-voiced but powerful Britney Coleman.
The latter two, Germanacos and Coleman, are particularly impressive in virtually everything they contribute to the production, especially as they duet with a lovely and memorable “Tonight” from “West Side Story.” This number also provides a neat fulfilling coda to this pair’s previous scene where they played the bickering couple from “The Taming of the Shrew.” Germanacos also provides a stirring rendition of “Maria” which immediately precede “Tonight” as the show builds towards its conclusion with a third number from the Bernstein-Sondheim show, the ensemble’s swelling version of “Somewhere.” Coleman acquits herself quite well in her other numbers, moving from seriousness to sassy with great ease, depending upon the needs of the specific song.
Akers, whose long slender body accommodates costume designer Candice Donnelly’s luscious green gown quite strikingly, seems somewhat stilted in her numbers, giving off an iciness that seems to separate her from the other members of the cast. Her legendary voice has lost some of its delicious quiver, but she delivers her solos “Falling in Love With Love” and Dankworth’s “Winter,” quite well and harmonizes with Coleman and Wells on the marvelously rewarding version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Sing for Your Supper.”
DeHaas acts and sings all of his numbers with confident aplomb and shining in particular on an exciting take on “What a Piece of Work Is Man” from the musical “Hair,” based on a few lines from “Hamlet,” with his costar Germanacos. DeHaas also works well with all three of the women in the cast, particularly with Coleman on “Star Crossed Lovers,” and later with both Akers and Coleman on a spellbinding version of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low,” a brief nod to “Much Ado About Nothing” from the musical “One Touch of Venus.”
Among the odder choices made by the creative team is the decision to include a number from the George Forrest-Robert Craig Wright (“Kismet”) flop “Kean,” about the Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, called “Willow, Willow, Willow.” It is sung by a character playing Desdamona in a Kean production of “Othello” and here is sung, quite ably, by Coleman, but without context it just seems arbitrarily included in the show, perhaps to get a reference to the Moor into the evening.
The six on-stage musicians led by Barker is more than up to the task of playing Barker’s interestingly complex arrangements that capture some of the power and thrill of the original productions of some of these shows which featured larger orchestras. They fit nicely into Riccardo Hernandez’s efficient set which features a curtain decorated with quotes from Shakespeare in Elizabethan handwriting that flows around the entire edge of the set, that warms to Robert Wierzel’s lighting that shows it off best in inviting shades of red, maroon and violet. A red carpeted area in front of the orchestra juts slightly out toward the audience to provide some room for the performers to sing and move, with Dan Knechtges’ unobtrusive choreography. Lamos's direction seems limited to standard-issue musical revue stagings, with the characters looking at each other admiringly or cutely, out into the audience yearningly, or standing in lines and moving forward or backward, sometimes with a prop, sometimes not.
Donnelly has costumed the cast in attractive, semi-formal outfits that lend a sense of class and refinement to the proceedings, as if the audience were guests at a private cocktail party. For the men she has created white low-hanging crew collar shirts that go under their black jackets which provides an appropriately unusual touch to keep things modern and eye-catching. The three women’s costumes convey a sense of easy elegance that allows for sufficient movement when singing and contrast nicely in their duets with the guys.
“Sing for Your Shakespeare” is ultimately a pleasant review of some familiar and perhaps forgotten numbers, unified slimly by a not-always apparent connection to Shakespeare. The cast does a fine job, but in no way are they blowing the roof off of the Westport Playhouse or providing some significant new insights into Shakespeare. Instead of worrying too much about how everything relates to the Bard, it’s probably best to relax, sit back and enjoy the numbers with no expectations and appreciate the thoroughly professional cast and the live orchestra, realizing that their ultimate goal is to entertain you for an hour and a half.
“Sing for Your Shakespeare” plays through June 28 at the Westport Country Playhouse, 28 Powers Court, just off Route 1, in Westport, CT. For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 203. 227.4177 or visit the Playhouse’s website at www.westportplayhouse.org.
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