The entrance of the company of “Best of Both Worlds,” a gospel/R&B/soul take on Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” is spectacular. The all-black cast of nine arrives wearing Saturday-night finery, in a purple Cadillac convertible that comes through an upstage loading-dock door. They warm up the audience and look ready to bring down the house before the show proper even gets started.
While the first act promises and even delivers a lot — thanks mostly to the top-tier singing talent and a hot four-piece combo — the second act loses its focus, taste and, unfortunately, its way. The show recovers somewhat at the very end, thanks mainly to the Bard’s improbable but touching conclusion, but not enough to right a production that only gives the best of one world.
First presented Off Broadway, this musical reinvention is now getting a full production at American Repertory Theater, where a.d. Diane Paulus has made it her mandate to shake up Shakespeare — and her audiences — with a series of three shows “inspired” by the Bard that make up the first half of her inaugural season.
While the revival of “The Donkey Show” was mindless disco fun, and “Sleep No More,” by U.K. troupe Punchdrunk, was a deconstructed nightmare, “Best of Both Worlds” comes closest to traditional storytelling. But like the others, it jettisons much of the Bard’s poetry.
The first half is well crafted along Shakespeare’s outline. King Leontes is here named King Ezekiel (Gregg Baker), from the cool musical kingdom of Funktopia. Consumed by jealousy, he accuses innocent wife Serena (Jeannette Bayardelle) of infidelity with King Maurice (Darius de Haas), a rival from the warmer, more soulful musical kingdom of Groovonia.
Against the protests of his mother Violetta (Mary Bond Davis), Ezekiel orders the death of his wife and banishes his newborn babe, Rain, falsely believing she’s the offspring of Maurice. When Ezekiel’s only son dies of grief over the apparent loss of his mother, the king realizes the devastation he has caused.
From this melodramatic soapsical, the perfs sing with passion, even if the entertaining songs by composer Diedre Murray and lyricist Randy Weiner are rather pedestrian. Singers make several tunes hit the rafters, including Bayardelle’s “The Way I Love You,” Davis’ “Let a Little Sunshine In” and Brianna Horne’s second-act numbers. Baker infuses the King’s solos with basso authority.
Larger problems come in the second act, which fails to create an alternative kingdom anyone would want to live in. This world is basically represented by an X-rated nightclub where a grown-up Rain (Horne) dances for her adopted Sweet Daddy (vet Cleavant Derricks in an extremely likable turn) — but keeps her virginity. (The double casting puts a strain on credibility, and the sight of a tassle-twirling, out-of-control Davis flashing the audience is one bit of shtick too many.
Rain falls for suitor Tariq (Lawrence Stallings), who is secretly the son of Maurice. The Groovonian king soon objects to the prince marrying this presumed ho. But as in Shakespeare, all is righted and even Serena comes back to life for a miraculous reunion with Ezekiel, accompanied by a gospel choir.
However, the emotions seem strained rather than earned. The joy of the finale comes mainly from the audience’s respect for the hard-working performers, who climb back into the Caddy for one more gig.