By HOLLY JOHNSON // Unusual stagings and traditional ones alike give talented, nimble members of the company a chance to cut loose with their respective talents, and travel together through the challenging world of song and dance.
Twenty, even 15 years ago, we wouldn’t associate musicals with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Today at least one musical show brightens the town each year, and often it is the star of the season. Unusual stagings and traditional ones alike give talented, nimble members of the company a chance to cut loose with their respective talents, and travel together through the challenging world of song and dance.
This season, unusual describes OSF’s “Yeomen of the Guard,” the 1888 operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. Originally set in the Tower of London where prisoners await execution, this 21st-century version, in its premiere performance, adapted by director Sean Graney, Andra Velis Simon and Matt Kahler, plunks us down in a modern-day Texas-like (or it could be Oklahoma, or….) town called Tower Green. Here, guitars, fiddles, banjos, and slide guitars give a country-western slant to this high-energy, very funny production, where folks sitting on stage get to participate in the show in an unusual fashion.
Not an orchestra to be heard: Instead the actors play instruments, and the musical selections are loaded with plenty of twang, borrowing rhythmic patterns from various country-western pop songs. Once you get used to the idea, you can’t help go with the flow, even if you’re a purist when it comes to G&S. The night we attended, high school kids sat on the “stage” in the Thomas Theatre, took movement directions brilliantly, and added to the excitement.
Not just a play, “Yeoman” is also a party. We’re told we can get up and leave any time if the bathroom calls. Oh. And there’s a one-minute intermission. Which doesn’t make any sense. But don’t worry. It all works out.
The cast digs into the material con much gusto, and every member shines. Jeremy Peter Johnson, who started in a first-rate “Guys and Dolls” a few seasons ago, charms us with his mellow tenor voice and guitar skills as Fairfax, the prisoner awaiting a beheading for something so ridiculous that it’s forgettable. In “Yeoman,” people end up getting engaged to folks they’re not in love with: apparently they just want to settle down and get it over with. Fairfax is a catch for the ladies, and his true love appears to come out of left field. Britney Simpson is marvelous in two roles:
The bouncy Phoebe Merrill, who loves Fairfax, and Krazy Kate, a bespectacled character fresh from of a cartoon who can hardly walk straight (think Crazy Eyes in “Orange is the New Black”). How Phoebe ends up paired off with droopy, dour Shadbolt the Jailer (a fine-tuned, slightly hippy sketch by Michael Sharon) is anyone’s guess. K.T. Vogt is another hit as a brassy, brazen Warden Caruthers whose sassy ad-libbing in the audience adds much, and whose hair is taller and fuller than anything Dolly Parton ever envisioned.
Colorful costumes designed by Alison Siple are other-worldly country clothes that take us in and out of reality. With its sense of improv and inventiveness, this “Yeomen” may be a good way to introduce kids to musical hits of yesteryear. At any rate, it’s a funfest for everybody.
ANOTHER production that isn’t billed as a musical but well could be is “Twelfth Night” directed by Christopher Liam Moore. This story of a shipwreck, a woman disguised as a boy, multiple romances and multiple confusions takes on a new sheen and sensibility set in 1930s Hollywood at Illyria Studios, where Orsino (the dishy Elijah Alexander) is a finicky film director from the old country, decked in polished riding boots et al. He’s got a crush on Olivia, a glamorous starlet (pure gold in the hands of Gina Daniels) who will have none of him. There are plenty of songs included by Shakespeare (a custom in many of his best comedies): “Oh Mistress Mine,” Come Away, Come Away Death” and “When I was a Little Tiny Boy” are a few. But the tunes are drastically altered to fit the 1930s and the sophistication that marked the movie industry then.
Pianist Ron Ochs is on stage throughout to accompany the selections composed by David Reiffel. When Feste the Jester played by Rodney Gardiner as an upcoming movie actor breaks into a tap dance with Sir Toby Belch (A W.C. Fields look-alike marvelously sketched by Daniel T. Parker) and the martini-swilling Sir Andrew Aguecheek (the hilarious, rubber-legged Danforth Comins), we know we’re in for a dandy time. And the final number, with the whole cast singing and dancing up a storm, offers the best of the silver screen. A fine blend of an Elizabethan classic comedy with the glamorous movie world.
“Yeoman of the Guard” and “Twelfth Night” run at OSF through October 30, 2016. Check the website for tickets and further information.