Ashland report: singing twins, a military hero gone wrong

In 1938, when Richard Rodgers, Larry Hart, George Abbott and George Balanchine brought The Boys From Syracuse to Broadway, no one had ever before made a successful musical from a Shakespeare play. And Boys, a free and breezy adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, was successful. Its jazzy score landed several songs — Falling in Love With Love, He and She, This Can’t Be Love, Sing for Your Supper — in the Great American Songbook, to be picked up and played around with by interpreters as diverse as Mel Torme, Oscar Peterson and Sonny Rollins.

But while Boys paved the way for such later hits as West Side Story and Kiss Me Kate, and helped inspire many more musical adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, including Arne Zaslove’s popular Twelfth Night with Gershwin tunes for the old Bathhouse Theatre in Seattle in the 1980s, it hasn’t had a lot of revivals. New York’s Encore series of staged musicals produced and recorded a top-flight version in 1997, but a 2002 Broadway revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company was by most accounts (I didn’t see it) badly botched.

Too bad. I’ve listened to the music a fair amount, but I’ve seen a production of The Boys From Syracuse only once, years ago at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, and it’s left me longing to see it again ever since (like another Rodgers & Hart show, 1940’s Pal Joey, which also has a terrific score and is rarely revived).

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival‘s new outdoor production of The Comedy of Errors isn’t The Boys From Syracuse. But it is a free musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy (which was itself an adaptation of a Plautus comedy from ancient Rome), and it has its considerable charms.

Director/adapter/lyricist Penny Metropulos, composer/lyricist Sterling Tinsley and lyricist Linda Alper — the same team that created last season’s Tracy’s Tiger, a labored musical adaptation of a William Saroyan story — have got a lot right this time around. They’ve set this merry mixup of two sets of separated twins (the brothers Antipholus and their servant/sidekicks Dromio) in a Wild West town, given it a rustic multilevel wooden set by Michael Ganio and hired the superb costume designer Paul Tazewell (Broadway’s Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk and On the Town, among many others) to give the large cast the perfect look of the imaginary American-comic West, somewhere between Pecos Bill and The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County.

Whether this is a flat-out musical comedy or a play with music is open to interpretation. Metropulos has played around with the language a lot, substituting comic Western exaggerations for Elizabethan tomfoolery. But she also retains a lot of Shakespeare’s best lines, creating a hybrid that is more truly Shakespearean than, for instance, the entirely rewritten West Side Story, which is Romeo and Juliet only in its structure and plot. And Tinsley’s songs and incidental music, which are always enjoyable, nevertheless feel more like riffs on common themes than a focused attempt to create a whole, coherent, original body of songs. If a lot of it sounds familiar it’s because it’s, well, familiar, inviting the audience to hook into sounds already in its musical bank. There’s some witty quoting from Gilbert & Sullivan, and one of the best numbers, the patter song that introduces the snake-oil salesman Doctor Pitch, brings to mind a similar number from a similar scene in the underrated Disney movie musical Pete’s Dragon. All of that’s OK, and it works quite well. But it suggests that this project is more this season’s version of The Comedy of Errors (and a pretty good one, at that) than an attempt to create a lasting new musical for the American repertoire.

Metropulos’ production gets a little ramshackle at times, particularly in its scenes of general frenzied dithering, which come across as actual frenzied dithering rather than the clean, clear impression of frenzied dithering. But the mood is swift and sweet, the jokes hit more often than miss, and the show is loaded with genial, enjoyable performances (John Tufts and Tasso Feldman, the brothers Dromio, are especially good; David Kelly is a stitch as a drawling and hard-partying mine owner; and Rene Millan as the sweet-voiced troubabor/narrator Jose Luis nicely sets the show’s lightly mythic tone).

Under new artistic director Bill Rauch the Ashland festival seems to be developing an interest in musical theater, a turn of mind that I applaud: Tracy’s Tiger last season. The Comedy of Errors this year, and next season, in a production that Rauch will direct, the great comedy The Music Man, a true American original, with one of the best opening scenes ever devised for any show at any time. Possibilities for future seasons abound. What could be more Shakespearean in structure and spirit, for instance, than Guys and Dolls, with its paired stories of high comedy and low comedy? And — who knows? — maybe the next time The Comedy of Errors’ turn rolls around, The Boys From Syracuse.

One of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s great virtues is its commitment to producing the entire Shakespeare canon, although of course the big hits are produced a lot more frequently than the likes of Titus Andronicus, Pericles and Henry VI. That means that, every few seasons, Coriolanus goes on the Ashland stage — and Coriolanus is a play that really ought to be seen a lot more than it is. The story of a great Roman general who messes up hugely when he moves into politics, it’s probably Shakespeare’s most overtly political play (although the Henry IV/Henry V sequence is both deeper and more shrewd on the subject).

This year’s production in the intimate New Theatre, directed by Laird Williamson, is up-close and intense — at times, especially when passages of exposition are being declared through clenched and angry teeth, a little too intense. But that’s a minor flaw in an admirable production which is built around Danforth Comins’ boyish, petulant and grievously self-absorbed Caius Martius, the conquering hero who is given the honorary title of Coriolanus before being named Consul of Rome. Coriolanus is a cautionary tale about the dangers of the military mind adapting itself to politics, but it’s at least as much about class warfare: Coriolanus, a purebred aristocrat, is openly contemptuous of the plebians who must give their consent to his appointment, and it’s more that unbending contempt that undoes him than his military set of mind. He’s more MacArthur than Eisenhower, although MacArthur’s sins weren’t necessarily snobbery.

Too much can be made of contemporary allusions (especially this year, when another military man, John McCain, is the presumptive Republican candidate for the presidency), although Williamson’s production is neatly contemporized: I especially like the image of the people’s tribunes gathering information on their cell phones and getting the latest updates on their laptops. Yet it’s impossible not to think about issues of leadership, and what qualities make for good leadership, and what qualities that may be admirable in another context become dangerous and destructive in the political world.

A special nod to one of the festival’s finest actors, Richard Elmore, who outdoes himself as the canny yet narrow-minded politician Menenius.

Coming up in the next few days: Othello, The Clay Cart and The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler at the Shakespeare Festival; the musical Archy and Mehitabel at Oregon Cabaret Theatre. Stay tuned.