The sheer joy of theater is evident in `Verona'


February 26, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Here are some of the props that crop up in Center Stage's exuberant production of the 1971 rock musical Two Gentlemen of Verona: a giant inflatable pink heart, a minimotorcycle, a sofa shaped like huge red lips, a tree with bright green balloons as foliage, a laptop computer, a skateboard, a "Believe" sign and a pair of inflatable dolls with the faces of Richard Nixon and George Bush.

If this seems a far cry from Shakespeare, it should. The musical - with a score by Hair's Galt MacDermot, lyrics by John Guare and a libretto by Guare and Mel Shapiro - is an uninhibited, multicultural, summer-of-love, anti-war, flower-power adaptation of the early Shakespearean comedy.

And from start to finish, director Irene Lewis' production is an exultant celebration of the Bard, rock 'n' roll, romance and the sheer joy of creating theater. The entire cast is strong; the six-member on-stage band, led by Eric Svejcar, truly rocks; and Luis Perez's choreography is some of the hottest, most athletic and inventive dancing ever seen at this theater.

This is all the more impressive considering that: 1) Two Gentlemen of Verona is far from Shakespeare's best play, and 2) despite winning the 1972 Tony Award, this seemingly dated musical has largely fallen into obscurity. Indeed, Center Stage's production is one of the show's rare major regional theater revivals.

In lesser hands, the show might be dismissed as a lesser work. But Lewis has given it a production that may actually be better than the musical itself. It's a show, after all, with a rather unusual history. Initially intended to be a nonmusical Central Park production by the New York Shakespeare Festival, it was transformed into a musical when its incidental score grew to more than 30 songs.

With a few alterations, the plot adheres to Shakespeare's tale of two Veronese friends, Proteus and Valentine, who both fall for a woman named Silvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan. The trouble is, Proteus already has a girlfriend, Julia, back in Verona. When Julia discovers she's pregnant (one of the musical's emendations), she and a friend head for Milan, decked out in men's clothing, which, at Center Stage, they remove from the aforementioned inflatable "presidential" dolls.

The chief features of designer Christopher Barreca's Head Theater set are two rows of mirrored doors, which look like a cross between lockers, mall dressing rooms and magicians' mirrored cabinets. Out of these doors - and up and down the theater's aisles - pop a cast of energetic, multigifted, multiethnic actors.

At the top of the list is Rodney Hicks' Valentine, who, after falling for Silvia, belts out a soaring paean to romance, "Love's Revenge," and whose dynamic dancing stands out even in this accomplished company. And, Angela Robinson's Silvia proves to be a princess of soul as well as sensuality in the steamy "Night Letter."

The cast underwent an unexpected change during previews when the actress playing Julia suffered a vocal injury and was replaced by Toni Trucks, a member of the chorus. The original actress is still recovering, but Trucks, a spirited performer, displays just the right level of gumption for her gutsy character.

Other notable performances include those of Ivan Hernandez as fickle Proteus (although Hernandez is almost too charming to be a villainous two-timer); Kingsley Leggs as the Duke, whose "Bring All the Boys Back Home" is an exercise in spin-doctoring that would warm the heart of Dick Cheney; and Lenny Daniel, who, as Silvia's first love, Eglamour, manages to sing while hanging by his knees from the set's hydraulic bridge.

"You can't love another without loving yourself" is a lyric that repeats over and over in Two Gentlemen of Verona. It may sound like the motto of the "me" generation, but Center Stage has found lots of unselfish love in this offbeat, hybrid musical, and it passes that love on to the audience.

Two Gentlemen of Verona

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. selected Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays and 1 p.m. March 9. Through March 27

Tickets: $10-$65

Call: 410-332-0033

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