When the musical adaptation of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” won the musical Tony in 1972, it had the timeliness of a cheeky, hippie-era riff on the sacred words of a venerable playwright named Shakespeare. The show then pretty much disappeared, which would seem to make it ripe for rediscovery. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from an otherwise vigorous Center Stage production is that what seemed timely in one period may possess little more than time capsule value today.
Once you cut through the frantic romantic plotting, vaudevillian skits, colorful costumes, large and highly animated cast and 38 songs, you find that all the spectacle doesn’t add up to much. “Two Gentlemen of Verona” is less than the sum of its parts, and some of those parts aren’t much to shout about. Alas, it’s a mediocre musicalization of one of Shakespeare’s minor early comedies.
The main reason for this archaeological dig presumably is the opportunity to hear again the score by Galt MacDermot, who made his reputation in 1968 with “Hair.” His deliberately scattershot score for “Verona” features very short songs in diverse styles including rock, jazz, soul, Latin and other genres difficult to classify because the snippets only seem to last a minute. Many of these musical bits are enjoyable, but they do not add up to a memorable whole.
As for the lame script by John Guare and Mel Shapiro, which combines the Bard’s words with hip patter, it mainly reminds us that Guare evolved into a much better writer than what’s on display here.
That script retains the narrative core of Shakespeare’s play about how the friendship of Proteus and Valentine is tested by complications that include both of them falling in love with Silvia, and Julia’s stymied affection for Proteus. The ingredients are present for an amusing Shakespearean soap opera, but the characterizations are shallow and the motivations arbitrary.
Director Irene Lewis tries her best to breathe life into this moribund flower child. The Center Stage production aims for renewed topicality with such contemporary props as cell phones, but this only serves to add more thin layers to a multicultural pastiche. It’s true that a character like the war- and presidential campaign-waging Duke of Milan — who evoked President Nixon for the original Broadway audience — now prompts thoughts of George W., but such parallels are tantamount to keeping a “duly noted” scorecard.
The perky cast might be having a better time than the audience, but that’s no reason to slight their contributions. Ivan Hernandez as Proteus and Rodney Hicks as Valentine are congenial comic partners, and their solid singing is highlighted by Hicks’ perf of “Love’s Revenge.” Also delivering songs and skits with ease are Toni Trucks as Julia and Kingsley Leggs as the Duke of Milan.
All this quasi-Shakespearean show business smoothly plays out on a vividly colored and very flexible set design by Christopher Barreca, whose best touch is a moving platform that takes music director Eric Svejcar and his musicians across the stage while they’re also capably moving through musical styles. The harlequin-hued costumes by Catherine Zuber and the tech credits in general have such a light and lively tone that they make a good case for bad material.