Tina Stafford, Laura Shoop, and Jimmy Ray Bennett in Illyria
(© Richard Termine)
Tina Stafford, Laura Shoop, and Jimmy Ray Bennett in Illyria
(© Richard Termine)
It's been six years since the Prospect Theater Company first presented Peter Mills' Illyria, now at the Hudson Guild, a musical adaptation of Twelfth Night that is a marvel of economy. It condenses the events of the Bard's original comedy into a compact and unhurried two hours, while retaining much of the work's sly wit and suitably melancholic feeling. And if Cara Reichel's current production is far from ideal, it nonetheless offers a chance for audiences to embrace the beguiling musical's many charms.

Shakespeare's characters have been heightened to the appropriate pitch for musical comedy, but they're essentially as we already know them. There's Viola (Jessica Grove), who believes her twin brother Sebastian (Mitch Dean) to be dead when she washes up on Ilyria's shores and therefore sets about impersonating him. She becomes lovesick for Duke Orsino (Brandon Andrus) as soon as she's engaged as his servant, but the Duke pines for the constantly-in-mourning Lady Olivia (Laura Shoop) who naturally falls almost immediately in love with Viola disguised as Sebastian.

Meanwhile, Olivia's drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch (Dan Sharkey), the maidservant Maria (Tina Stafford), the foppish Andrew Aguecheek (Ryan Dietz), the faithful but fatally vain steward Malvolio (Jimmy Ray Bennett), and the jesterish Feste (Jim Poulos) are among the characters engaged in the story's secondary mischief-making plot.

Besides the book, the musical's most outstanding pleasure is Mills' appealing and tuneful music, here sung admirably without amplification and played by seven on-stage musicians. Although he's since composed more cohesive scores, Mills wrote some of his most lilting and lovely ballads for Illyria, including a gorgeous first act closer called "Save One" in which Viola, Count Orsino, and Olivia each pine for their unrequited love. Although the secondary characters' upbeat music-hall numbers are not as interesting as the main characters' ballads, the melodies are always infectious. Indeed, it would be a challenge to leave the theater without the drinking song "Cakes And Ale" committed to memory.

Generally, the men in the cast fare better than the women. Andrus' assured delivery and creamy-smooth singing make him an ideal Count Orsino; Poulos makes an energetic and audience-pleasing fool, who particularly seems to relish putting over the character's crafty wordplay; and Bennett's hammy prancing as Malvolio is right on target, as he makes it easy to laugh at the character's misfortunes.

The production's biggest disappointment is that the otherwise capable Grove doesn't seem to have been asked to do much in the way of making her Viola appear masculine when disguised as Sebastian, save for initially lowering her voice a couple of octaves. This threatens to make the character too blandly sincere and deprives us of the fun of seeing Viola present exaggerated masculine behaviors that fool the other characters. This is especially disappointing since Dean does his part to soften his manner to help make the mistaken identities conceit roughly plausible. (He also brings nifty comic timing to the scene when Sebastian gradually surmises that Orsino is smitten with him.)

Nevertheless, Illyria remains an enjoyable musical treat. May it play on.