Audiences for “Illyria,” Georgia Shakespeare’s musical version of “Twelfth Night,” on stage through August 5, are likely to divide into two camps. Some will find that the music adds fun and energy to a familiar play, and some will sit uncomfortably, wondering why on earth the characters keep breaking out into frigging song.
On the night I went, most of the audience seemed to set itself firmly in the first camp. I wanted to join them but found myself more often than not in the second. Although there are a couple of successful numbers, Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” proves surprisingly resistant to being turned into a musical. And despite some occasional attractive melodies, the songs never sit comfortably within the story.
“Illyria” sticks closely to the plot and text of “Twelfth Night,” keeping Shakespeare’s lines but adding music and lyrics by John R. Briggs at particularly emotional or comic moments. The big, dramatic opening number, “This Is Illyria,” is a bit of a jumble: a character plays guitar, Shakespeare’s twins are separated in a shipwreck, Orsino postulates that music is the food of love, and Viola decides to disguise herself as a boy. The cast then repeats “This Is Illyria” in a weighty, ominous refrain as the entire set moves around in imitation of an expensive, overwrought Broadway show.
J. David Blatt’s set is colorful and pleasant to look at once it settles into place: it has an old-fashioned sort of exoticism. An Arabian Nights setting for “Twelfth Night” is actually a lovely idea, and the stairs and platforms of the multi-level set, as well as the intricate Moroccan-style columns and painted domes, provide a colorful backdrop for the action.
Love dominates in the story of “Twelfth Night,” so there are a lot of love songs in “Illyria.” Unfortunately, they all tend to sound the same, and there are a lot of reprises. Collaborating with Shakespeare on a love story isn’t easy; obviously, adding a bit of your own writing to his is bound to present challenges. A character who has the line “A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon than love that would seem hid; love’s night is noon” opens her mouth a few scenes later to sing, “As long as flowers bloom, as long as birds sing their tune, I will love you.” Some pitch problems in the love songs didn’t help either.
The comic songs fare a little better, though the ones given to Sir Toby Belch and his gang seem labored and unfunny. The most successful number is the clown’s “Come Away, Come Away, Death,” with lyrics by the Bard, but done as a George Strait-style cry-in-your-beer country song. It’s crooned by Travis Smith while Viola and the Duke drown their sorrows in beer (of course) and shots of tequila. The song has a catchy, well-sung tune that throws in elements of genuine humor and inventive riffs on the action. There’s also a fun, energetic Harry Belafonte-style calypso number in the final resolution scene, but even that never quite manages the fitting, simple, playful spin that the clown’s song does.
Veteran Atlanta actor Chris Kayser offers an appropriately bawdy and earthy Sir Toby. Kayser is an awesomely versatile actor, but I couldn’t stop myself from trying to detect bits of Scrooge’s fussiness and vocal tics in his Sir Toby. It’s somewhat like the period in Michael Caine’s career when he seemingly appeared in nearly every movie that came out. When you saw him on screen, you didn’t think, “There’s Evelyn’s brother” or “There’s a British officer in the Zulu wars.” You thought, “Hey, there’s Michael Caine.”
The program notes tell us that inspirations for the show include Andrew Lloyd Webber and Disney musicals. These seem rather low, maudlin entertainments for such a talented cast and crew to aim for. Most of the audience seemed to have a nice time, but I found myself longing to see Kayser and the rest of the cast, set and costumes in a more traditional production of “Twelfth Night.”