Malvolio (Ames Adamson) and Olivia (Kate MacKenzie) do the tango in Illyria(Photo: Cara Reichel)
Malvolio (Ames Adamson) and Olivia
(Kate MacKenzie) do the tango in Illyria
(Photo: Cara Reichel)
It must take a lot of nerve to musicalize a play by Shakespeare. The primary conceit of musical theater is that when characters reach a point where they can no longer express their feelings in words, they sing. But Shakespeare, the most poetic and inherently musical of all English-language playwrights, already sings. How can a songwriter possibly use Shakespeare's words as the takeoff point for his own music? Astonishingly, Peter Mills accomplishes this with Illyria, his new musical adaptation of Twelfth Night.

It isn't that Mills, a recent recipient of the Jonathan Larson Grant, is so brilliant a songwriter than he manages to one-up the Bard. His music, haunting and pleasant (and lushly orchestrated for a seven-piece orchestra by musical director Daniel Feyer), serves more or less as underscoring for this romantic comedy. Mills does not attempt to soar above Shakespeare's poetry but complements (and compliments) the master by borrowing bits and pieces of the original text and then adding some of his own witty, lovely lyrics; and it is thanks to the excellence of Mills' book that the show works at all. From the period costumes down to the speech, this is a faithful adaptation, but Mills has modified the language just enough that he himself doesn't have to struggle to keep up with the beauty of Shakespeare's verse and the audience needn't strain to understand the dialogue. The result is a seamless collaboration between a 400-year-old genius and a talented, up-and-coming writer--not an easy feat, that.

Illyria--or Twelfth Night, or What You Will--begins with a shipwreck that leaves a young woman named Viola on shore alone, thinking that her beloved twin brother has perished in the wreck. Posing as a man, she gets a job as a servant to Duke Orsino, who rules over Illyria, the land where she has landed. Orsino spends all day and night moaning about his love for the noblewoman Olivia, who will have none of him as she is mourning (for the seventh year straight) the death of her brother. Viola acts as a go-between for these two; in the process, she falls in love with Orsino and Olivia falls for Viola (or, rather, for Viola's masculine facade).

As that love triangle establishes itself, there is a secondary plot involving Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and his cronies: Maria, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Feste the Clown. These four convince Olivia's stuffy servant Malvolio that the lady is in love with him. Meanwhile, Viola's brother Sebastian, who in fact survived the shipwreck, shows up in Illyria and--looking just like his sister in her manly garb--wreaks all kinds of mistaken-identity havoc with Orsino and Olivia. Eventually, the situation is sorted out and the play ends happily for almost everyone.

Illyria gets plenty of laughs out of this convoluted story, but it often rises and falls on the strength of its cast. Leon Land Gersing was seemingly born to play Sir Toby; he revels in the character's bawdy humor and joyous excessiveness like a cuddly but mischieveous teddy bear. Rich Affannato plays Orsino as a self-centered drama queen, yet he is still a convincing romantic lead. Arik Luck is ideal as the clown, Feste--goofy, charming, irreverent, and clearly the smartest guy of the lot. As the heroine Viola, Kate Bradner ends up playing straight man (as it were) to these comic characters, but she fills the role admirably. However, it appears that she and Courter Simmons (Sebastian) were cast partly due to their similarity in coloring and build; since they both appear markedly younger than the rest of the cast, the resulting romantic pairings seem a bit awkward.

Left to right:  Viola (Kate Bradner), Orsino (Rich Affannato),Olivia (Kate MacKenzie), and Sebastian (Courter Simmons)at a momentous moment in Illyria(Photo: Cara Reichel)
Left to right: Viola (Kate Bradner), Orsino (Rich Affannato),
Olivia (Kate MacKenzie), and Sebastian (Courter Simmons)
at a momentous moment in Illyria
(Photo: Cara Reichel)
With a set by Scott Aronow and costumes by David Kaley, the look of the production is unpolished but effective. Cara Reichel's direction is generally fine, with an occasional flash of inspiration here and an occasional bad choice there. Mills, too, proves to be fallible--the script could use trimming in certain sections and a bit more clarity in others. Some of the songs are forgettable but, on the whole, this is an enjoyable score: notably, Feste's clever "Silly Little Syllogisms," Sir Toby's infectious drinking song "Cakes and Ale," and the love ballads "How These Things Start," "Undone," and "Save One."

Illyria works wonderfully in its current, intimate setting but would also seem to have the potential for success in larger venues; with heightened production values and some recasting, it could even do well on Broadway. This is a fine example of a great play transformed into a very good, thoroughly enjoyable musical.