The latest musicalization of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey’s season-closer “Illyria,” is a crisp, lighthearted fancy acted with considerable vitality and charm, bolstered by a hummable score.
In this loose reworking of a classic comedy, Peter Mills has retained just enough snippets of Shakespeare to savor the source, and his accompanying score is considerably bright, melodic and engaging. Olivia passionately surrenders to love in “Undone” and Maria, acted with sauce and spunk by Kristie Dale Sanders, stands her ground with “The Man Is Mine.” “Patience” is Viola’s sweet confessional of harbored longing.
The ladies at the center of the romantic entanglements are Lady Olivia, persuasively fetching as acted by Maria Couch, and Viola (Elena Shaddow), the shipwrecked twin sister of Sebastian (Chris Peluso) who, disguised as a male page, becomes the target of misdirected amour. Shaddow is a sweet picture of innocence in her boyish vest and knickers, and she sings like a morning lark.
Ames Adamson is a devilishly delicious scene-stealer as Malvolio, the vain and vulnerable tragic steward. Duped by the carousing Sir Toby Belch and his cronies, the foolish pawn finds himself wooing a startled countess with misguided ardor. Adamson (repeating the role he originated in the 2002 Prospect Theater Co. production) not only captures the broad comic cartoon of the character, but reveals his subtly tragic core. He also turns “Malvolio’s Tango” into an artful, amusing spin.
With a booming, bellowing voice, T. Doyle Leverett invests a commanding mix of blowsy bluster in the role of Belch, the hardy plotting braggart, while Benjamin Eakeley is a delightfully insipid fool as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. A fluttering ninny, Eakeley’s loose-limbed perf would appear to be inspired by Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow. Feste, the quick-tongued fool, is acted by Joel Blum with a breezy, blithe spirit.
Director Paul Mullins has balanced the hardy humor and the rapture of romanticism with flashes of comic invention and reverence to the Bard. A spare, functional set centered by a staircase leaves plenty of room for the hijinx, and the period costumes are attractively tidy.
The Bard’s rollicking comedy has served the musical stage often, most recently in 1997 with “Play On” featuring music by Duke Ellington, Richard Adler’s “Music Is” and two productions in 1968, “Your Own Thing” and “Love and Let Love.” Considering the shortage of original musicals, this production is so well cast and so infectiously melodic that it cries out for future life.