nytheatre.com review by Lisa Ferber
June 20, 2008
Shaw Sings! is the Encompass New Opera Theatre's presentation of the opera versions of two of George Bernard Shaw's plays: The Dark Lady of the Sonnets and Passion, Poison & Petrifaction. The first was written in the early 1900s as a personal plea from Shaw, a tale where William Shakespeare convinces Queen Elizabeth I to establish a National Theatre. The second is a farce involving infidelity, murder, intrigue, and all traditional farce fare. Both are performed with a 14-piece orchestra, with music and libretto by present-day composer/writer Philip Hagemann.
George Bernard Shaw was one clever fellow. A random Google search where I inserted his name and "wit" pulled up 127,000 hits. And that is why I was wondering just how quickly paced an almost fully operatic version of his work would come across.
Through superb singing, beautiful costumes, and an overall fine production, the plays do work, and very well at that, yet it's hard not to notice that some of the subtleties get lost. The fact is that Shaw's wit, while sometimes farcical, sometimes is completely dry and quick, which can get squashed in the process of musicalizing. The libretto is terrific, and the performances are top-notch. The thing is that a line tends to become longer as it's sung and therefore the delivery does not always feel as sharp. For example, there is a part toward the end of Passion, Poison & Petrifaction where Lady Magnesia Fiztollemache says to her maid Phyllis about the bodies of recently killed folks in her room in a most casual, matter-of-fact manner, "Phyllis, sweep them up." Phyllis replies, "Yes, my lady. Will they be in your way if I leave them there till morning, or shall I bring up the dust pan and take them away?" The Lady answers, "They will not disturb us, Phyllis, good night." I wish this, among other lines, had been spoken, as the brevity of the whole thing would have been strengthened.
Yet cleverness abounds in the writing. From The Dark Lady of the Sonnets we have this interchange between the Warder and William Shakespeare: "I keep tryst here tonight with a dark lady. She promised to bribe you. I gave her the wherewithal: four tickets to the Globe Theatre." "Plague on her! She only gave me two....I care not for these newfangled plays. You can't understand a word of them: all talk." Also, in an exchange between Shakespeare and the Queen: "Mister Shakespeare...there are things not seemly to be said to a virgin queen." "Madam, it is no fault of mine that you are a virgin, although 'tis my misfortune." And some in-jokes for Shakespeare fans, including this exchange: Warder: "Frailty, thy name is woman." Shakespeare: "Prithy, say that again about frailty. It is a strain of music."
Special mention to Justin Sherwood's hilarious silent performance as the butler in Passion, Poison & Petrifaction. Sherwood adopts a manner that is both mischievous and elegant in the way he holds his face and the precision of his movements; there's a Cabaret-like wickedness combined with balletic movement. I was not surprised to find dance training in his biography. The short dance routine shared by Sherwood and Darcy Dunn as the saucy maid Phyllis perfectly sets the farce's comedic tone.