"Sing For Your Shakespeare"

by David A. Rosenberg

Don’t be put off by the title. “Sing for Your Shakespeare” is more cabaret act featuring a passel of Broadway and pop songs than a tribute to the Bard. The lightweight revue at the Westport Country Playhouse that so wants to be an insightful celebration of our greatest dramatist turns out, despite an excellent cast of singing actors and several highlights, to signify little.

Bless its heart, though. There’s a larkish air about the evening, even though disastrously marred by ugly costumes and a restless lighting design. Fortunately, the six players, backed by a terrific band and sparkling arrangements, manage to gloss over the production’s flaws and offer not a few memorable moments.

Rodgers and Hart gave Shakespeare his first hit musical, we’re informed at the start. That would be “The Boys From Syracuse,” based on the early “The Comedy of Errors,” a tidbit of information followed not by a further elucidation of how the original was transformed, but by four, admittedly lovely, out-of-context songs from the show.

Thus the scene is set for a bifurcated evening, in which tenuous connections are made to Stratford’s favorite son. Only when numbers emerge from context does the evening take hold. So Sonnet 40 is recited in full, followed by the Ellington-Strayhorn setting of same. That works.

In this seesawing evening, Frank Loesser’s juvenile condensation of “Hamlet” pales in comparison to a poignant number from “Hair” that uses (and transposes) the “What a piece of work is man” speech from that tragedy. A moving scene from “The Tempest” between Prospero and Ariel is followed by the song “Ariel,” another effective moment. Lovely, too, is Forrest and Wright’s “Willow, Willow, Willow,” based on Desdemona’s plaintive plea in “Othello” although a further comparison with Verdi’s setting of the passage might have deepened the moment.

Excerpts from “Kiss Me, Kate” cursorily tie that musical to its source, “The Taming of the Shrew,” and if the names Romeo and Juliet are mentioned in connection with “West Side Story,” they were missed. Wisely, for the finale, it’s back to “Kiss Me, Kate” for Cole Porter’s brilliant “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” which really does have something to do with the Elizabethan author.

As conceived by Wayne Barker, Mark Lamos and Deborah Grace Winer, with direction by Lamos and musical direction and arrangements by Barker, the 90 minutes amble is only intermittently pleasant. Dan Knechtges’ embarrassing choreography doesn’t help.

If cabaret luminary Karen Akers’ sophistication doesn’t quite fit in, more’s the pity, for she’s a star through and through. Britney Coleman’s voice soars, even when dressed in what looks like a gray teddy. The reliable Darius de Haas sparkles, Laurie Wells is all effusive good will and Constantine Germanacos, with his leading man pipes and looks, shows his talents for acting as well as singing. Almost stealing the show is the veteran Stephen DeRosa, working beautifully with Germanacos and a hoot when dressed as Shakespeare.

That costume is about the only decent one in designer Candice Donnelly’s collection of cheap-looking women’s gowns. Riccardo Hernandez’s bright scenic design enlarges the Westport stage, splaying Shakespeare’s words on the back curtain and proscenium arch. The design is corrupted, however, by picayune, inappropriate chandeliers.

As for Robert Wierzel’s horrendous lighting, either colors distractingly change during numbers or lights are flashed on and off like a berserk Tinker Bell. Sometimes, you just had to look away.

That had an advantage, though. With eyes averted, you could wallow in Barker’s spiffy musical arrangements and the delight of his unusual (piano, reeds, percussion, accordion, bass, harp, cello) orchestra. In Shakespeare’s words, the orchestra and the cast’s voices “creep in our ears” and “become the touches of sweet harmony.”


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