I’ve been a fan of the mash-up ever since I heard that playing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon during a muted Wizard of Oz creates a completely new experience. On the other hand, I’m absolutely NOT a fan of the jukebox “musicals” such as Mama Mia and Movin’ Out, because I’ve always thought it was rather cheap to take pre-existing songs and retrofit them till they trip over some sort of plot. Frankly, I’d rather just listen to Abba and Billy Joel singing the original versions.
So, when I heard about Mr. Shakespeare and Mr. Porter (Created and Directed by Barbara Vann) – an almost overly-ambitious idea of taking music from Cole Porter (one of the 20th centuries wittiest, wryest, cleverest song smiths) and pairing his classic tunes with the plays of William Shakespeare - I thought “This could either go one way, or the other”. What I hadn’t bargained on was that there was a third way all together.
This review will have to be short for two reasons. One – it may go to places I don’t want to take it … and Two – after seeing pretty clearly what Act 1 (King Lear and Macbeth) had to offer, I chose not to stay for the offerings of Act 2 (Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Since all the songs were listed, I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to miss, and chose to miss it anyway.
I’ve been a fan of Cole Porter’s music since the first time I heard “Anything Goes”. I’ve seen his biopics (“It’s De-lovely”: the Kevin Klein version that told Porter’s real story as well as “Night and Day”: the Cary Grant version which gave the 1940s-Hollywood sanitized version) and I’ve bought his song books to sing with friends around the piano. There’s hardly a Cole Porter tune I’m not familiar with. As far a Shakespeare, I have enough of an appreciation for a well done Hamlet or Macbeth or Lear as anyone. Brilliantly done Shakespeare drops you to your knees and stings your eyes with tears. Badly done Shakespeare — well, if you’re doing it badly, it better be because you’re playing it for laughs. And transforming Shakespeare’s tragedies into intentional comedies takes a lot more than broad over acting, eye rolls, and scenery chewing. It takes as much talent, subtle wit and dexterity to re-conceive Shakespeare’s plays as it took the man himself to do it the first time.
Before the show even began I got a bit of a sinking feeling as I looked around at the distracting set design. Black curtains were bizarrely covered with large white check marks reminiscence of the food-labeling campaign “Smart Choices” (and unfortunately made about as much sense to me as seeing that check on a box of Froot Loops). Pinned to the curtain’s upper right corner was what I can only guess was meant to represent a crazy clock: (Whheeee! Time Travel! We’re Mixing It Up!) a round circle with what appears to be numbers, symbols and other unidentifiable things (An Ankh? A Pi? A Three?) drawn freehand with no better than a sharpie marker. Now, I’m certainly forgiving when small theatre chooses to do sets on the cheap (especially when very little is required of the background) but in a time of free computer generated clip art, and hell, even the Cricut Expression® Machine … there’s absolutely no excuse for decorating your set like that. Ever.
There were many ways I could have seen this show going. Creator, Director, and player Barbara Vann could have taken a cue from Mr. Porter and present it all very dry, bending the classic text until it pointed toward New York. Or she could have undercut the witty and turned up the Shakespearean drama. Or actually any formula in between could have worked – play it comically broad for cheap laughs, mire it in absurdity, or just go for broke with a so-bad-it’s-good presentation. However, as I sat there I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how this cast had been directed to play it. So, rather than fault it for not living up to what it could have been, I’m going to go ahead and just say that I didn’t get it and leave it at that. It quite possibly succeeded in arriving at its desired destination; so let’s just say that I was hoping to get a lift to another part of town.
What I will point out is that if you isolated certain moments there was no doubt that Nikki Ferry (cast both as Cordelia as well as Lady Macbeth) was the highlight of the show (or the part that I experienced). Her singing voice was lovely and strong, she made it enjoyable to hear some great old chestnuts like “I’ve Still Got My Health” and “My Heart Belongs To Daddy”, and her Shakespearean acting was proficient – especially given the circumstances. And a few moments were entertaining – moments when I could see what the original concept had been and was pulling for the troupe to keep it going and make it work. There truly is something enjoyable about watching Macbeth (Peter Tedeschi) tell his Missus “You’re A Bad Influence On Me”. But the few sparkling moments almost felt accidental despite itself. For the most part I felt like I was watching a cobbled together idea conceived drunkenly at the Thanksgiving table and performed in the living room by Grandma, Aunt Fay and Cousin Bert in order to fill up some time before Mom saves us all with dessert.
To be fair, the MEDICINE SHOW THEATRE has mounted numerous productions of this show – in 1992, 1995, 2001, and 2008 – so I’m wondering if I just demand more than previous audiences who apparently enjoyed this show – obviously enough to give Ms. Vann and Co. the inspiration to perform it over and over again. It’s possible that other ventures were more tightly produced or executed with more mirth. But as for me, I think I’ll just go pop in my Kiss Me, Kate DVD and get my Shakespeare-Porter combo the way the musical theatre gods intended.
–Mr. Shakespeare and Mr. Porter
MEDICINE SHOW THEATRE
549 West 52nd Street 3rd Floor (between 10th and 11th Ave)
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 4:00 PMTickets are $18 and are available from Smarttix at (212) 868-4444 (www.Smarttix.com) For more information, please log onto the company’s website at www.MedicineShowTheatre.org.