Friday, May 12, 2017

1930s "Midsummer" Musical Is Most Fun When It's Shakespeare's Script

The "mechanicals" from A Midsummer Night's Dream (Chris Bennion)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Seattle Shakespeare Company
(at Cornish Playhouse)
Through May 21, 2017

Did you know that Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the most performed play in the world? It’s a comedy and it’s Shakespeare and apparently that’s the golden ticket. Seattle Shakespeare Company is mounting it again, as we can certainly bet that they will continue to do, every four or five years. There’s always a new way to try, and audiences love to come.

This year’s production is in the style of a 1930s movie musical. There’s singing and dancing, the Busby Berkeley kind – they even use lighted props!! (thanks to the ideas of choreographer Crystal Dawn Munkers who also plays Hippolyta). There are a few head scratchy types of decisions by director/Theseus George Mount, like the entire play being performed “back stage” of a theater. “It’s a play within a play, see.” That and some other ideas don’t help, but then mostly they don’t hurt that much either.

Mount and his actors have a very firm grasp of the comedic elements, which are a joy. MJ Sieber, last year’s Gypsy Rose Lee Award nominee for a similar comedic master turn in A Winter’s Tale, also a Seattle Shakes production, is wonderful as Bottom, the simple man turned into a donkey by magic. Most of the common folk in the play-within-a-play (now –within-a-play!) are great fun. Steven Davis, a soon-to-be graduate of Cornish, is quite hilarious as Starveling, the Moon.
The casting of a couple of folks normally seen in musicals around town, John David Scott, as Puck, who gets to do something Puck never does: tap dance!!! and Mallory Cooney King as Hermia, give some oomph to the “musical” part of this offering. They do a great job singing, of course.

I am no fan of the actually musical compositions, unfortunately. The lyrics are Shakespeare’s and are fine, but the compositions are strained and a bit tedious. In fact, the concept tends to bog down the play. That’s a bit sad, since it is kind of a fun idea “on paper” and I can clearly see why it wanted to be tried. However, it’s also part of the fun in the sense that the choreographic elements by Munker are quite appropriate and while “simple” in design are well-suited to actors who don’t usually do this sort of activity on stage.

The cast throws themselves so enthusiastically into the performance that it helps the overall sense of glee. So, together, you can overlook the parts that don’t work and enjoy the show.

There was one more difficult area, small but important, and it clearly is in the realm of “they didn’t know they needed one”: they did not have a sound designer. They had a sound “consultant” but since they do not routinely do musicals, they didn’t know they need someone to design around and manage both the levels of the instruments and voices and the melding of it all together. Opening night there were some really difficult sound issues and I hope they’ve figured out how to better manage that particular area. And “next time”… make sure you include a sound designer, too.

Please note that when critical comments are made, that doesn’t automatically mean that the advice is to not see the production. Certainly, there are those moments that don’t work, but there is a lot to enjoy here and it is certainly also a fun family outing. While “trying something new” didn’t pan out too well, it’s still the most popular play in the entire world, so that’s gotta be worth something!

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