Love is in bloom and back in style. "Two Gentlemen of Verona" opened last night at the St. James Theater. It has music by Galt MacDermot - who gave you "Hair" - lyrics by John Guare - who gave you "The House of Blue Leaves" - a book more or less by William Shakespeare - who gave you "Hamlet" - and is produced by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival - who have already given it in the park.
It is a lovely fun show that joyously survives its transplanting. It started in Central Park last summer. But what began for New York as a summer tryst has now successfully become a winter affair, and should go on for a long, long time. It is a little different now perhaps, but I assure you no less sweet.
The play, which has been happily and luckily adapted by Mr. Guare and Mel Shapiro - who is also responsible for the musical's staging - is not one of Shakespeare's more timeless masterpieces. Yet it has a surge of youth to it, at times an almost carnal intimation of sexuality, and a boisterous sense of love. It is precisely this that the new musical catches and makes its own.
The musical also has a strange New York feel to it - in the music, a mixture of rock, lyricism and Caribbean patter, in Mr. Guare's spare, at times even abrasive lyrics, in the story itself of small-town kids and big-town love. It also has a very New York sense of irreverence. It is a graffito written across a classic play, but the graffito has an insolent sense of style, and the classic play can still be clearly glimpsed underneath.
Some changes have been made since the park - a few changes in casting as well - but not all that many. The feeling of summer nights, and free and shirt-sleeved audiences, that of course has gone. But the formality that might have been expected to encroach upon the musical has been very firmly resisted.
The show still has something of the madness, cheerfulness and spontaneity of a New York block party. everything has not been gussied up out of recognition, and mercifully there has been no attempt just to make this into another more or less successful Broadway musical. The slightly sweaty charm that was enchanting in the park, is just as charming and just as sweaty in the well-upholstered plush of Broadway. And it is unlikely to rain.
The story of love and love's suddenness is certainly substantial enough for a musical, and archeological chips of the Shakespearean text that crop up from time to time fit in most snugly with the music and the additions. At times the poetry sounds ironic (which is fun enough), but most of the time it seems perfectly natural, which perhaps shows that there is rarely anything wrong with a musical book that a little blank verse might not put right.
This, I must stress, is not a spoof of Shakespeare. There are a few tastefully contrived anachronisms - a bicycle here and a telephone here - and of course its whole urban mood has been translated into New York's own melting pot of ethnic juices and verbal babble. Yet in general this is - to adapt a line from a previously famous Shakespearean musical, Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate" - always true to Shakespeare darling, in its fashion, always true to Shakespeare in its way. Certainly I prefer it to any number of pious bardic pilgrimages where the pilgrims have lost their way in piety.
It seems explosively appropriate that our tough, guerrilla Shakespeare Festival should it (sic) into its first Broadway theater with a production that cares only for the Shakespearean spirit and not a fig for the Shakespearean letter.
Mr. MacDermot's music is more subtly shaded and more variegated than his score for "Hair". He uses guitars, mandolins, marimbas, as well as more conventional strings and trumpets, and some of the numbers are beautiful, and many more are perkily funny. Mr. Guare's lyrics have a brusque toughness that is admirable, and his rhymes are occasionally as acerbic and as rigged as his sentiments.
The show is also a special triumph for the director, Mr. Shapiro, and the set designer, Ming Cho Lee, who has given scaffolding a new chic. Mr. Shapiro keeps the whole musical going as if it were a merry-go-round that had got slightly drunk wherever it is that merry-go-rounds go when they need to celebrate. It is all joyfully slick in a very deliberately casual way, and the choreography by Jean Erdman and, much more, the staging of the musical numbers by the Ballet Theater's Dennis Nahat add to the jollity and the piece's essential humanity.
What I really love about "Two GEntlemen" is its simplicity. Beneath all the multicolored gimmicks and extravagances, there are real people living and loving, and this I find very moving. The play is beautifully cast and acted.
There is a touch of real improvisation about the acting that helps disguise and even soften the musical's rock-hard professionalism, and the actors prove a delight. As Silvia - lusty, strong-tempered but weak-willed - Jonelle Allen is sensational, and Diana Davila, with a little-girl voice that has the occasional lapse of a lisp, is no less effective, if rather quieter, as Julia. As the two Veronese who woo them, Clifton Davis, tough and quizzical, and Raul Julia, moon-faced and extravagant, are matchless.
Among the assorted clowns, I enjoyed Jose Perez as Speed, Alix Elias as a most bouncy Lucetta, John Bottoms as Launce (with the dog Phineas surely deserving a special canine Tony as Crab), Norman Matlock as the Duke of Milan, and maddest of them all, Frank O'Brien scudding around in frantic euphoria as Thurio.
I had a great time. I only wish that it had been three or four gentlemen instead of only two. Perhaps it will be in the movie version.
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