Summary : Westport Country Playhouse has a new musical hit, so why am I so disappointed?
There is no denying that Westport Country Playhouse has a hit on its hands. Judging from the standing ovations at the end of performances, the extended run due to ticket demand, and stellar reviews by other publications, Sing for Your Shakespeare seems to be pleasing audiences and critics alike. Yet after watching this 90 minute, no intermission show I was left wondering, why did I feel so disappointed?
Directed by Playhouse artistic director Mark Lamos, and co-conceived by Wayne Barker, Mark Lamos, and Deborah Grace Winer, Sing for Your Shakespeare is a world-premier musical revue exploring how the American Songbook has been influenced by William Shakespeare. With selections ranging from jazz to Broadway show tunes, a Broadway-caliber cast, a sleek set designed by Riccardo Hernandez, and an excellent on-stage orchestra under the musical direction of Wayne Barker, I had anticipated an entertaining musical that deepened my knowledge of Shakespeare and the shows and songs he inspired. But what was presented was an oh-so-lighthearted pastiche that lacked depth or erudition. It was light; it was airy; it was musical fluff. At certain points in the show, I was reminded of being forced to watch old Lawrence Welk episodes with my grandmother. All that’s missing are the bubbles.
Riccardo Hernandez’s set is opulent and polished looking. Cleverly displaying Shakespeare’s immortal words on the scrim and the proscenium, with a sleek bandstand for the orchestra along with the added touch of hanging chandeliers, I was reminded of old movies with exclusive nightclubs where people listened to big bands and danced. The costumes designed by Candice Donnelly, consisting of lavish evening gowns with long gloves for the ladies and tuxedoes for the men, added to the image of elegance from days gone by.
There is not a lot of dancing in the show and what is there is not very impressive, despite the extensive experience and past accolades for the show’s choreographer, Dan Knechtges. I was disappointed with the awkward lifts and transitions by dancers Britney Coleman and Darius de Haas, and doubly disappointed when a slow dance sequence was just that — slow dancing in a tight embrace with feet barely moving, like something you’d see in a high school gym — followed by a few dance moves and dancers running off stage with arms dramatically outstretched for effect. Even more disappointing was the “Too Darn Hot” number from Kiss Me Kate. No tap dancing like Ann Miller in the film, no big dance number by steamy cast members like the Broadway show.
The cast sports an impressive list of Broadway, Off-Broadway, film and television credits. The collective experience of Karen Akers, Britney Coleman, Darius De Haas, Stephen DeRosa, Constantine Germanacos, and Laurie Wells makes them seem like a dream team for entertaining musical theater. They all have great singing voices and acting abilities (with Ms. Aker’s well-seasoned voice sticking to lower ranges), but I felt that their years on the stage worked against them. In many instances, their performances were too polished and rehearsed, to the point where the gestures, the smiles, winks, and nods to the audience felt inauthentic and contrived.
There were surprising parts of the show that I did like, including some songs I had never heard before: “Sonnet to Hank Cinq” written by Duke Ellington and Billy Stayhorn, “Ariel” by Emil Adler and Julie Flanders and “Willow, Willow, Willow” by George Forrest, William Shakespeare, and Robert Craig Wright. I enjoyed most of the spoken Shakespeare interspersed throughout the show, and I even loved the opening madrigal, “It was a Lover and His Lass” from As You Like It.
But many of the songs just didn’t work for me. I did not like the bit of camp that came in the form of the song “Hamlet,” written by Frank Loesser or the “Shakespeare Song” by Richie Webb and David Cohen, that had a bewigged and costumed Stephen DeRosa appearing as a lounge singer Shakespeare, complete with ditsy backup singers.
I didn’t even like some of those songs that I already knew and loved from other musicals and films, not because they were performed poorly, but because when taken out of context, they just did not seem to work. I was unmoved by the selections from West Side Story. Even though they were sung well, I just did not feel the emotion behind songs like “Maria,” “Tonight,” and “Somewhere.”
Darius De Haas and Constantine Germanacos sang “What A Piece of Work is Man” from the musical Hair beautifully, but the song loses its punch when performed on that elegant set, with an elegant orchestral accompaniment, instead of being sung by two younger, clear voices juxtaposed against the carnage of the Vietnam War and violence of 60’s protests. The same was true for the song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from the musical Kiss Me Kate. I can still picture Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore as the two mob wiseguys from the film educating us with their particular brand of Shakespearean knowledge. But when sung by the entire company in this musical revue, with affected accents and buffoonery, it just becomes the ‘same old schtick.’
All in all, I liked the concept of celebrating Shakespeare in song but Sing for Your Shakespeare falls short on many levels. The talent is there, but this production plays it too safe. While it is sure to please those seeking very light entertainment, it will not please anyone seeking something new, exciting, or innovative. Sadly, I do not think this is the type of show that will attract new audiences or future generations of subscribers. That may be the biggest disappointment of all.
Sing for Your Shakespeare runs through June 28th at Westport Country Playhouse. For more information, call the box office at (203) 227-4177, or toll-free at 1-888-927-7529.