It is fairly common for a book to migrate to a screenplay that becomes a movie and ultimately a musical. There are lots of examples—E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime fits that progression. More common these days is the reverse trajectory of a film that is turned into a musical, like Amélie or Billy Elliot. Shakespeare in Love, the huge seven-time Oscar winning hit of 1998, seems at first glance to be an unlikely candidate to migrate to the stage, but then it was first produced in London by Disney Theatrical, an entity that knows how to manufacture a hit. Adapted by Lee Hall from the screenplay written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, with music by Paddy Cunneen, Shakespeare in Love is not really a musical per se, but rather a play with some singing and dancing and lots of Elizabethan incidental music performed by a smart small combo.
The South Coast Rep’s lavish production of Shakespeare in Love is a feast for the eyes and ears. It is as close to a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, who produced the show last year, as one could get. The scene is London, 1593, in the reign of Elizabeth I (Elyse Mirto). Will Shakespeare (Paul David Story) is a struggling young playwright in the cutthroat, free wheeling world of London theatrical production, in which backstabbing deals, the purloining of plays, political corruption and more made for an overarching kind of desperation. The plot is complex with appearances by well-known individuals of the time, notably producer Philip Henslowe (Bo Foxworth), actor manager Richard Burbage (Louis Lotorto), playwright Christopher Marlowe (Corey Brill), actor Ned Alleyn (Nick Gabriel), and Queen Elizabeth’s Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney (David Nevell), who was responsible for overseeing theatrical production and censoring activity that might offend current morals, such as the appearance of a woman on stage; he is something of a comic prig in the show.
The object of Shakespeare’s desire alluded to in the title of the play is the fictional Viola de Lesseps (Carmela Corbett), the super-smart daughter of a wealthy merchant and a lover of the theatre and poetry. She is a willful young woman who cannot see why women should be banned from performing on stage. Aided by her Nurse (Amelia White), she dresses as a boy and auditions for Shakespeare’s new comedy, which he hasn’t written yet, but sports the title Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. Through many plot twists and turns, the pair fall in love even though she has been betrothed against her will to a grasping, impoverished nobleman, the fictional Lord Wessex (Bill Brochtrup). The unpleasant nobleman has cut a deal with her father (Stephen Caffrey) who is essentially selling his daughter in order to move up the social ladder. Those who know their history will recall that Shakespeare had a wife and children back in Stratford who get some passing references.
The hard working ensemble takes on multiple roles. They are Ricky Abilez, Alicia Erlinger, Matthew Henerson, James MacEwan, Aaron McGee, William Francis McGuire, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Bing Putney, Adam Silver, and Fleur Zanna, with musicians Alexander “Lex” Leigh, Scott Waara, and Cinnamon Dempsey as Spot, the Dog.
The production, under the direction of Marc Masterson, is well served by a fine creative staff. Ralph Funicello’s scenic design, lit by Jaymi Lee Smith, gives the appearance of solidity with wooden beams that create a false proscenium, as well as a multilevel stage house reminiscent of the classic Elizabethan theatre with an inner below and an inner above. To call Susan Tsu’s costume design sumptuous really doesn’t go far enough. Jeff Polunas is the sound designer; Annie Loui created the choreography, with Scott Waara as music director and David Nevell serving as vocal and dialect coach. Fight director Ken Merckx livens up the stage with some impressive swordplay. The production manager is Joshua Marchesi, and the stage manager is Roxana Khan.
South Coast’s Shakespeare in Love is a rollicking good time. The show is loaded with Shakespeare references and many, many familiar lines that are used in the service of comedy. The truism that “the more you know, the more you get” is totally appropriate here. The air itself is infused with the sparkling language of the Bard.
Shakespeare in Love continues though February 10 on the Segerstrom Stage of South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.