Review: Shakespeare set to music at Virginia Shakespeare Festival in Williamsburg
The last time audiences were transported to the world of Shakespeare’s Illyria was in 2006 when the Virginia Shakespeare Festival presented a glittering production of the musical.
Fast forward eight years to the return of the tried-and-true production which opened Wednesday night for a two-week run at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall.
The show still has all the charm of its last stint here, although with a cast that I feel has a few more chinks in its musical armor. Be that as it may, the show still has great appeal and technically is one of the most imaginative and colorful I have seen in many years at PBK.
I hope those who haven’t attended the VSF in the past, will take in the fun and spirited production. It’s the Bard, but is very palatable for those who may be wary of a Shakespearean production.
“Illyria” is a campy, musical retelling of the Bard’s “Twelfth Night,” one of his most beloved comedies. It was written by John Briggs and Eric Frampton. The score is really catchy and some of the songs easily become ear worms. The musical genres run the gamut from ballads to pop to country to gospel.
The story of “Illyria” parallels “Twelfth Night,” with the story focusing on the separation of siblings Sebastian and Viola during a shipwreck. The pair washed up on the shores of Illyria where Viola disguises herself as a servant boy, Cesario—who subsequently falls in love with her master, Duke Orsino, who is already in love with Olivia. Of course Olivia falls in love with Cesario, unbeknownst it’s really Viola. And so it goes. Then as in any Bard work, there’s subplot. In this case it involves the duping of pompous Malvolio, which provides a lot of the show’s humor.
The set design of this production, cleverly conceived and executed by J. David Blatt and complemented by Steve Holliday’s really magnificent lighting, makes this show pop. I was extremely impressed how this show looks. It is like a page from a coloring book has been splashed onto the stage. Five stars.
The music, like the last production, was delivered through a track. There were a few numbers that I wished had a fuller sound, and there were times I lost lyrics by some of the performers. My favorite number was hands-down “Lord Have Mercy,” which incorporates the ensemble and has the vocal excitement I wanted in every number. In fact, the entire Malvolio incarceration is brilliant, anchored by the versatile and infinitely talented Karl Kippola, who played the same role in 2006. As in that production, Kippola was a high point of this show. Great work.
John Ammerman, who played Sir Toby Belch in the last production, directed the show. I thought his handling was generally very good and he kept things moving along, which is key to any Shakespearean work. His obvious knowledge of the play was apparent, and the plot and all its machinations played crystal clear, which in its self is a testament.
The cast has many talented performers taking on the roles, including Gillian Wiggin as the peppy Viola/Cesario, Tre Cotten as Orsino, Kyle Downing as Sebastian, Richard Follett as Feste and Lynette Rathnam as Olivia.
Shakespeare wrote silver platter roles for Maria, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian who foiled the bombastic Malvolio with their plot. They were played to the comic hilt by Tamara Johnson, Ed Whitacre, Billy Reed and Steven Makropoulos. Reed was especially funny with his contortionist moves.
Patricia Wesp’s costumes were magnificent. My favorite was Olivia’s Act 2 gown. Wow. Beautiful.
The Bard’s Market, which is located in the Dodge Room of the theater, provides entertainment before and in many cases during, intermission. Local musician Tim Seaman was the opening night performer on hammered dulcimer. It all adds to the ambience of the festival, which is a treasure in our community.