"Illyria" is a musical adaptation of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" and it is an extrarordinarily rare thing in musical theater, an adaptation of a classic work that is fresh and imaginative and makes the story feel new without changing the essence of the original. The Book, Music and Lyrics are by Peter Mills with the adaptation credited to Mills and Cara Reichel. There are some liberties taken with the original text, particularly in using contemporary rather than Elizabethan English (except in lyrics), but the source material is honored and embellished with smart writing, sweet and amusing music and a comic sense of lyric romanticism.
This production, directed by the ever resourceful Karen Lund, shapes a talented, energetic cast into a performance that is musically inventive, funny, surprisingly contemporary and romantically dreamy at the same time that it's romantically silly. The result is sheer delight and as genuinely charming a show as I've seen in quite some time.
"Twelfth Night" is the familiar story of two shipwrecked twins, Sebastian and Viola, the tangled romantic relationships of people who are always attracted to exactly the wrong person, the complications of class and social standing combined with comically tangled understandings of matters of the heart, and a nasty prank played on a most deserving victim. Viola disguises herself as a boy and takes her brother's name, which leads to great confusion when Duke Orsino, who believes he is in love with the elegant Lady Olivia, begins to fall in love with her (him). Everyone else in the play is similarly vexed by their romantic pursuits until somehow all of the pieces fall into place and everyone ends up with the right person. A happy ending, perfect for musical theater, and somehow believable in this magical place called Illyria.
While the acting is accomplished and satisfying in every role, not all of these actors are especially good singers. Still, their presentation of the songs lends a certain informality and naturalness to the storytelling. April Wolfe, who plays Olivia, is clearly the most accomplished singer in the group and her lovely voice adds elegance to the character. Like all the others, she is equally capable of loosening up when situations become uncomfortable or ludicrous.Mark Tyler Miller was a handsome and appealing Orsino, and when he becomes unsettled by his attraction to Viola (disguised as Sebastian) the confusion adds a nicely contemporary edge to the comedy. Helen Harvester played Viola so that she was always grounded, adaptable and connected with the others. I also liked the everyday likeability of Jenny Cross as Maria, the obnoxious and boisterous Sir Toby Belch played by David Anthony Lewis and the stuffy namby-pamby Sir Andrew that Simon Pringle portrayed. William Hamer was the sea captain, Antonio and Randy Scholz played the real Sebastian as a good-hearted and admirable young man.
The part of Malvolio, the self-obsessed and easily misled bad guy in this show can easily be mishandled. Again, Karen Lund's excellent direction allowed Daniel Stoltenberg to create a Malvolio who was never so bad as to deserve his mistreatment and never quite decent enough to be left alone. His role is quite central to the comedy of this show, if not really to the romantic complications. I thought he was quite funny, well-controlled and oddly sympathetic for his own lack of self-knowledge.
In the most purely comic role, that of Feste, Don Darryl Rivera just about ran away with the show. In the precision of his gestures, the energy of his many sub-characterizations within the role of Feste, his easy command of the musical numbers and his sheer affability, this performance did a great deal to establish the tone and finish of the entire production. Rivera is an actor with such an abundance of talent that no matter how long or how briefly he's on stage, we always want to see more.
This show left me with the same feeling. Well-designed by Richard Lorig, with excellent costumes by Sarah Burch Gordon and energetic, fun-filled choreography by Rebecca Katz Harwood, "Illyria" never sags for an instant or feels like it is anything but fully realized. Taproot has been consistently upping the ante on the quality of their productions for the past several seasons, and this is a fine example of the high level they are currently on. I can't think of a better date night show, or a better escape from everyday life to a time and place where the unlikely is ordinary, love is both inexplicable and inevitable, and there is music beneath every choice in our lives.
PICTURED ABOVE: Don Darryl Rivera and Helen Harvester in Illyria at Taproot Theatre.
PHOTO BY: Erik Stuhaug.