Two Gentlemen of Verona
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 26, 2005
There's a big rollicking musical comedy hit in Central Park right now; if we're lucky, it will zip over to Broadway, where it belongs and where it's sorely needed, before too long. I'm talking about Two Gentlemen of Verona, the John Guare-Mel Shapiro reshaping of Shakespeare's early play of the same name (the Bard put a "The" in front of his title). The Public Theatre has revived it in a deliciously entertaining production helmed by Kathleen Marshall, with an exuberant and engaging cast of first-rate singing, dancing, and comedic actors. It's currently ensconced in the blissful environs of the Delacorte as part of their free Shakespeare in the Park series, but it's going to look and feel just as fine indoors on the Great White Way.
The first act is pretty much 75 minutes of uninterrupted bliss. We meet the two gents of the title—Proteus (played with a charming mix of insouciance and naiveté by Oscar Isaac), who falls head over heels in love with a local farm girl named Julia; and Valentine (performed with assurance and panache by golden-voiced Norm Lewis, who at last has been given a role fully worthy of his immense talents), who is about to leave for the big city of Milan in search of fame and fortune. Just as things are heating up with Julia, however, Proteus's dad announces that he must go to Milan himself. Proteus doesn't realize that Julia is now pregnant and heads off; Julia, with her wily servant Lucetta, disguises herself as a man and hits the road to find her lover.
Meanwhile, in Milan, Valentine sets up shop as a professional letter writer and falls in love at first sight with Silvia, the daughter of the city's head honcho, the Duke. Silvia was in love with a fellow named Eglamour, but her father sent him off to war and has instead betrothed her to the rich but entirely repulsive Thurio. Notwithstanding all of this, when Silvia turns up at Valentine's shop, she switches her allegiance abruptly to Valentine (after a thrilling, quick courtship to the tune of Two Gentlemen's best number, the bona fide show-stopper "Night Letter"). Valentine plans to elope with her... until Proteus shows up, sees Silvia, and falls in love with her himself. Julia and Lucetta (in male drag) soon arrive as well, and then the complications ensue and ensue. When intermission comes, following Proteus's nasty song of planned deception called "Calla Lily Lady," we're on pins and needles waiting to see how these messes can get sorted out and the lovers can be correctly matched up.
Act Two doesn't disappoint: everybody is paired off properly by the time the show is over, though Guare makes his gentlemen go through rather more enforced growing up than Shakespeare ever did.
Throughout there's plenty of comedy (broad slapstick and wordplay); music in a variety of styles from the early '70s, from rock to country to funk to at least one old-fashioned (and excellent) musical theatre ballad ("Love's Revenge," beautifully sung by Lewis)—it's all composed by Galt McDermot, and while nothing here is as catchy or well-known as some of his work for Hair, it's a grand score, deserving to be heard anew; and terrific performances by Isaac, Lewis, Renee Elise Goldenberry (who sizzles and shimmers as Silvia), Mel Johnson, Jr. (properly authoritative and villainous as the Duke), John Cariani (perfect as the foolish servant Speed), and Megan Lawrence, who pretty much stops the show cold unexpectedly with a song called "Betrayal" (about which more in a moment).
The casting of Rosario Dawson as Julia is the production's one significant misstep; Dawson is a knockout, physically, but her singing voice is just too thin to do her numbers justice. But I'd start polishing Tony Awards for Lawrence, Johnson, Goldenberry, Isaac, and Lewis (alright, they probably can't all win, but they deserve to).
The production design is superlative, especially Martin Pakledinaz's colorful, imaginative costumes, which brilliantly bridge the Elizabethan floridity of the intact Shakespeare passages (of which there are many) and Guare and Shapiro's sprightly contemporary accompaniments. Riccardo Hernandez has provided a simple set whose main elements are two heart-shaped playing areas beneath the orchestra. With Peter Kaczorwoski's evocative lighting, it serves the show perfectly.
There's also a dog—Buster, as Crab, canine companion to Proteus's servant Launce; he's adorable and also stops the show when he puts his mind to it.
And there's also—and this was the part I was not expecting—social relevance of the timeliest sort, the main difference between now and 1971 being that we seem to have to borrow our activist art instead of creating it for ourselves. Guare, scarily prescient, has the Duke sing a song called "Bring the Boys Back Home" that contains this cynical snippet:
If we didn't have a war
Would we spend our money
Welfare, clean air, child care
And, a few lines later, this refrain:
To a man
For God, for country
"Betrayal," Lucetta's dark indictment of Proteus's behavior vis-à-vis her mistress Julia, ventures into a larger context as well
The air that we breathe is polluted
The wars that we fight are the same
But no one is quite sure who leads us
So no one is ever to blame
I'm proud to say that the audience packing the Delacorte at the performance I attended burst into spontaneous applause during both of these songs, which I take to be a sign that in addition to its vast capacity to entertain, Two Gentlemen of Verona would appear to have some very pertinent things to say to a Bush Era audience. It needs to go to Broadway and reach as many people as possible.