Rock the uke: Dan Clegg (center) is Proteus in California Shakespeare Theater’s world-premiere production of The Verona Project. Below: Nate Trinrud (left) is Valentine and Philip Mills (at microphone) is Sylvio. Photos by Kevin Berne
Let it be known that the world premiere of California Shakespeare Theater’s The Verona Project is a hell of a lot more fun than The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Shakespeare play on which it’s based. In fact, I can think of several Shakespeare plays I’d like to see turned into original rock concerts. Troilus and Cressida the Musical, anyone?
Amanda Dehnert has essentially reinvented Two Gents, which thought to be Shakespeare’s very first play, and actually made it interesting. She is the director, writer and composer of a high-concept show that takes elements of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, GrooveLily’s Striking 12 and Berkeley Rep’sGirlfriend to become a presentational musical/rock concert with some story thrown in.
The result is a lovable, enjoyable if not always successful show whose rough patches actually add to the charm. There’s nothing overly slick or polished about The Verona Project, and that’s a good thing. The central idea is that a band called The Verona Project has created a concept album based on Two Gents and they’re going to treat us to a concert performance of that album.
The set (by Daniel Ostling) is a decorated concert stage (think window display at Anthropologie) with doors and desks and staircases that roll on and off. The eight actors are also the eight members of the band, playing guitars of various kinds, the accordion, various horns (none of which can really be heard very well), drums and assorted noisemakers. David Lee Cuthbert’s lights have to be rock concert lights first, musical theater lights second, and he manages to do both successfully.
Dehnert’s idea is that she’ll take the non-annoying aspects of Shakespeare’s story and reinvent the rest, so we get two best friends, Proteus and Valentine, growing up in a small town and reaching that moment of decision when they become young adults. Val (Nate Trinrud) elects to see the world and discover himself, so he leaves their quiet hamlet of True and heads off to the big city. That leaves Pro (Dan Clegg) at home with his first-ever girlfriend, Julia (Arwen Anderson), who also happens to be the only girl in town (“There must be something in the water!” is a running joke).
Pro’s parents think their son should be more like Val and head into the big, bad world before he settles down with Julia, so without too much resistance, Pro heads off to the city to catch up with his buddy. He stays in touch with Julia with two cans and a very long string (a concept more twee than charming).
But Val is doing just fine on his own. He gets a job as a wordsmith – he creates poems and stories for people who need them (a concept more charming than twee) – and promptly falls in love with Sylvio (Philip Mills), the son of the Duke, who has been engaged to a girl practically since birth. (Fans of Two Gents, all three of them, will notice Dehnert’s nice gender bending here – in Shakespeare, Sylvio is Sylvia.) The romance between these boys is really where the heart of The Verona Project lies until much later in this nearly three-hour musical exercise when Julia emerges as a hero in her own right. It’s just so inherently satisfying that the sweet gay boys and the smart, courageous girl carry the show.
There’s a dark shadow under the stories of love and friendship and growing up, and that shadow is loss – especially loss of parents and spouses. A great deal of time is spent in graveyards and dealing with ghosts in this tale. In fact, the most beautiful song in the score is “The Quiet,” a song the women sing during a graveyard scene. Amid all the love is a lot of loss, and that seems just about right.
All the actors are appealing, and there are some nice small turns by Harold Pierce as the messenger Speed (his droll humor is invaluable), by Adam Yazbeck as the grief-addled Duke, by Marisa Duchowny as a variety of moms and Elena Wright as the smarter-than-anyone-thinks Thuria, the girl Sylvio is supposed to marry.
The disappointment in the show for me is in the music. Dehnert’s score is good more in theory than in practice. The songs tend to be over-long and lose shape and impact as they proceed. And though the cast members handle their acting duties admirably, their musicianship is all over the place. The vocals are intermittently wonderful and awful. Some of the singers – like Duchowny and Trinrud – are absolutely wonderful. Others struggle, and that’s distracting. Also, the musicianship is not stellar, neither are the vocal arrangements.
But, rather surprisingly, all that stuff is not a show killer. Dehnert and her cast attack this story of maturation, love, change and grief with such integrity that it all sort of works. There’s energy and enthusiasm and heart to spare, and that goes a long, long way toward making The Verona Project sing, almost in spite of itself.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
California Shakespeare Theater’s The Verona Project continues through July 31 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24), Orinda. Tickets are $35-$66. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.