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Hokey, fun, vibrant staging in musical version of 'Two Gentlemen of Verona'

Just don't expect much Shakespeare

Published August 2005

By Lucy Komisar


Two Gentlemen of Verona: The Musical
Adapted by John Guare and Mel Shapiro
based on the play by William Shakespeare
Lyrics by John Guare
Music by Galt Macdermot
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall

Delacorte Theater in Central Park
81st Street and Central Park West

The New York Public Theater Production of "Two Gentlemen of Verona: The Musical," adapted by John Guare and Mel Shapiro, is appropriately subtitled, "based on the play by William Shakespeare." That's an overstatement. The bits of Shakespearean plot are thin sinews connecting the Latino-rock musical directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. Not much of the bard's dialogue remains in this production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. It might better be called, "Two Guys from Verona."

Or sometimes it seems like "Shakespeare meets Carmen Miranda." That said, the production is a lot of fun for a sultry summer evening. And why not imagine what a Shakespearean plot would look like with a sexy Hispanic lady telling her errant lover, "sin verguenza!" Shameless! Or with a strong feminist consciousness inhabiting those cross-dressing ladies, Julia (Rosario Dawson) and her maid, (Megan Lawrence), who slip incognito into Milan?

The set is like a giant metal erector set, the backdrop for a chorus decked out in vibrant purples and oranges, a Duke (Mel Johnson Jr.) with dark glasses, his daughter Sylvia (Renée Elise Goldsberry) in gowns low-cut and sexy, intended husband (Don Stephenson) a bit fey. The music by Galt Macdermot, who wrote "Hair," is foot-tapping r&b, doo-wop, Latino, and country and western.

The story, as slim as the plot is here, involves Valentine (Norm Lewis), sent by his father to Milan where he falls in love with Sylvia, betrothed to Thurio (Stephenson). Valentine's friend Proteus (Oscar Isaac) also departs for Milan, but not until after a brief torrid affair with Julia. In Milan, Proteus is also smitten by Sylvia and plots to block his friend's suit.

Norm Lewis and Oscar IsaacNorm Lewis and Oscar Isaac
Photos by Michal Daniel

Julia and her maid arrive in Milan dressed as men, and are of course employed by Proteus. Sylvia's first lover, Eglamour (Paolo Montalban), returns from the front where he had been sent by her father to get him out of Thurio's way. Love rivalries, cross-dressing, far-flung combat – what could be more Shakespearean?

The play was first produced in 1971, when the country was riven by the American war in Vietnam. It was also a time of racial unrest and social conflict. Plus ça change. The Duke declares, "Bring the troops back home." If we didn't have them there, we could spend the money on clean air, welfare and child care! When the locals raise a banner, "Missione Completo," the Duke says, "I sent them there, I can bring 'em back." The audience loves this: this is blue New York.

Later, Sylvia's first lover, Eglamour, arrives in fatigues, beret and dog tags, with a peace dove on his shoulder. He holds up magical hands, and thuggish troops fall to the ground. Also for New Yorkers, "You live in the mansion I call my doublet. You live there on a permanent lease, nothing like a sublet." Corny, yes; also comic. This play is not for Shakespeare purists.

Norm Lewis and Renée Elise GoldsberryNorm Lewis and Renée Elise Goldsberry

Guare, the lyricist, mixes in a subtle satire of musicals for the cognoscenti with lines like "Lucky you, lucky me!" Kathleen Marshall ("Wonderful Town" and "Kiss Me Kate") knows how to stage production numbers with energy and verve, which she mixes here with humor and a repertoire of pop beats.

Lewis as Valentine stands out among the principals with a strong, melodic voice and presence. Isaac is a comic second banana as Proteus, and Dawson and Goldsberry are appealing musical performers, if not particularly strong actors.

Some of the minor characters are portrayed by actors who are theatrically better than the principals and certainly more Shakespearean in the traditional sense. John Cariani as Speed, servant to Valentine; David Costabile as Launce, servant to Proteus; and Megan Lawrence as Lucetta, servant to Julia, are all a delight.

In 1972, the play won Tony awards for best musical and best book. Time tarnishes its sense of sharp originality, but it's still an enjoyable, light-hearted, mildly political romp.

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