Norm Lewis and Renée Elise Goldsberry  in Two Gentlemen of Verona
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Norm Lewis and
Renée Elise Goldsberry
in Two Gentlemen of Verona
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Those of you with scant knowledge of theater history -- and you know who you are -- are hereby forgiven for thinking that Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Public Theater's second Shakespeare in the Park offering of the season, is some jerry-built, feel-good musical adaptation of the Bard's ramshackle comedy hastily thrown together in order to entertain the al fresco masses. That's because, as those of you who are up on your theater history are well aware, this is kind of the truth; you just need to turn back the clock about 34 years.

Composer Galt MacDermot, playwright John Guare, and original director Mel Shapiro put this breezy contraption together in 1971, probably never expecting it to leave the confines of the breezy Delacorte Theater. But the show's unexpected popularity propelled it to Broadway and it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1972, beating Follies in the process (though Stephen Sondheim garnered the Best Score award).

Given all of the Shakespeare plays available for adaptation, the talented trio's attraction to the source material -- as formulaic a comedy as the Bard ever wrote -- may seem odd. But Two Gentlemen easily allowed the expression of some anti-Vietnam War-sentiments: The Duke of Milan is not only running an economically profitable war but is using that war as a way to get rid of unwanted suitors for his beautiful daughter Silvia, whom he has had betrothed to the rich but insipid Thurio. The cunning collaborators also had the bright idea to make the piece more accessible by turning Silvia and her swain Valentine into African-Americans, while Proteus (Val's best bud) and his lady love Julia became Puerto Ricans, complete with snippets of Spanish dialogue. (Verona, schmerona; Italian, shmitalian.)

MacDermot had had a triumph just a few years earlier with Hair (in which he set Hamlet's "What a piece of work is man" speech to an achingly beautiful melody), and Two Gentlemen offered him another opportunity to use every color in his musical palette. The 30-plus songs he crafted include every kind of rhythm, from the R&B stylings of "Night Letter" to the Latin-flavored "Thurio's Samba" (did you ever expect to hear a Shakespearean character sing 'boom-chickaboom?') and the country-western ditty "Pearls", not to mention the doo-wop reprise of "Love's Revenge" and the mock-operatic "Eglamour." If nothing resonates as strongly as Hair's unforgettable anthems, MacDermot nonetheless created a very tuneful score.

The new Two Gentlemen is often engaging. But to completely captivate a 21st century audience, this show needs a more often excellent and more tonally consistent production than the one overseen here by Kathleen Marshall. The director-choreographer has done many things well, not the least of which is providing the talented 16-personal ensemble with particularly joyful choreography. She also encouraged fine work from the Tony Award-winning costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, and his Italy-meets-Barbados-meets-the-hippy-dippy-1970s duds bring constant smiles. And she has wisely entrusted the score to musical director/conductor Kimberly Grigsby, whose band is perched on the top tier of the functional bi-level set designed by Riccardo Hernandez.

Marshall has cast one half -- but only one half -- of the show's main quartet brilliantly. With his strong, sexy presence and mellifluous baritone, Norm Lewis as Valentine will stop just about every audience member's heart. True, he is highly unlikely to steal Liev Schreiber's crown as our premier Shakesperean actor, but Lewis handles the language with surprising confidence. He is matched by his fair Silvia, the delicious Renée Elise Goldsberry. Sensual and strong voiced -- think Lola Falana at the top of her game -- Goldsberry could literally blow the roof off the Delacorte if it had one. In addition to her four onstage suitors, she'll probably have thousands more offstage thanks to this showcase.

If only the other two lovers were as fortuitously cast! Rosario Dawson should be admired for making her stage debut in this reasonably challenging piece and, as it turns out, her natural feistiness tempered with a touch of sweetness is appropriate for the role of Julia. But -- and Rent fans should sadly take note of this -- she isn't much of a singer. Still, Dawson is Beverly Sills compared to Oscar Isaac (Proteus), who has an unfortunate tendency to go flat on many of his notes. And while this recent Juilliard graduate appears to be a natural Shakespearean comic actor (and a very good dancer) , he often seems to be imitating the show's original Proteus, Raul Julia -- with a touch of Antonio Banderas thrown in.

Megan Lawrence is a riot as Julia's pal Lucetta, Don Stephenson is a twit-like Thurio, Paolo Montalban is a strapping Eglamour, and Mel Johnson, Jr.as the commanding Duke of Milan gets the biggest cheers of the evening by singing the still painfully relevant "Bring All the Boys Back Home." (Well, it's a close race between him and Buster, the adorable dog who plays the oddly-named Crab). But the often fine David Costabile is far too understated as Launce, and John Cariani's herky-jerky Speed is far more annoying than hilarious. (Who knew that Motel the Tailor had Italian ancestry?)

The evening ends with a half-hearted display of fireworks, which proves to be an all-too-fitting finale for this production. If Two Gentlemen does move to Broadway this season, I doubt that Sondheim -- whose Sweeney Todd will have a Main Stem reprise in October -- needs to worry about history repeating itself.