It really has been an extraordinary year for Shakespeare for me – not just two Henry Vs but two visits to my least favorite of all Shakespearean plays, A Winter’s Tale. Sure, Propeller could motivate me to get off my duff the first time, but what in the world would lead me to go a SECOND time, in the same year, to see it again, when I had been freshly reminded of all of the things there were to dislike about it (a completely unsympathetic male lead, a ridiculous alteration in his mental state, an ending even Disney wouldn’t dream of)? In this case, it was the promise of getting to see a new musical, and a genuine curiosity about what would be done with this flawed play as an adaptation. Would its faults be sanded away, like a bad novel in the hand of an incredible movie director? Would it turn out to be an amazing musical with a slightly strange plot? Might I be witness to the birth of musical theater history, a la Kiss Me Kate? With a complimentary reviewers ticket and a complete openness to magic happening, I walked into press night at the Landor and grabbed myself a front row seat.
Things that worked well about this production: the voices (Pete Gallagher as Leontes was entrancing; Abigail Matthews shone as Perdita); the costumes (sort of late 19th century but with an imaginative flair); the ensemble numbers that made good use of the Landor’s limited stage. There were some liberties taken with the text that didn’t seem to ruin the essential story (though I question why Hermione was renamed Ekaterina?), and certain changes even added to it (the reduction of jealous tension during the sheep shearing festival certainly allowed more comedy).
Despite its strengths, though, despite the fact the story flowed and the characters felt solid, I felt that this production was not what I hoped for as a musical. The songs were uniformly unmemorable if occasionally clever lyrically; it wasn’t ponderous or experimental but neither was it catchy or hummable. I enjoyed the singing and the music, but when it was over I couldn’t remember them. And by taking all of the Shakespeare out and just keeping the plot, the creators missed a big trick, of taking the words of the best poet ever in English and setting them to music, or even using them not set to music, as dialogue. Admittedly, Cole Porter didn’t need any help, and Shakespeare himself was doing adaptations from Holinshed’s Chronicles; but a musical of a play of Shakespeare’s should, I think, have some Shakespeare in it somewhere. This had none, and was, I think, poorer for it; left to its own devices, it was merely a musical version of a play I don’t like very much. Perhaps it will be attempted again with a greater talent, and then the complete casting-off of Shakespeare will be forgiven; but West Side Story was a long time ago and this was not its successor.
(This review is for the opening night performance on Monday, November 12th, 2012. It continues through December 1st.)