Jeanette Bayardelle, Richard E. Waits, Ronnell Bey,and Kenita R. Miller in Best of Both Worlds
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Jeanette Bayardelle, Richard E. Waits, Ronnell Bey,
and Kenita R. Miller in Best of Both Worlds
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Randy Weiner's and Diane Paulus' The Donkey Show, now in the sixth year of its Off-Broadway run, explores Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in the context of the sexual revolution of the late '70s by turning the play into a night at a disco; but most audience members are too busy drinking, dancing, and singing along to the music of the era to pay attention to the show's post-gender deconstruction of the Bard's work. (Think of it as the slacker's approach to literary criticism.) Now, Weiner and Paulus have adapted A Winter's Tale into the gospel/R&B musical Best of Both Worlds, transforming Shakespeare's rarely performed romance into a religious allegory for the holiday season. The result is not only playful and accessible but also moving and meaningful.

In the original play, King Leontes of Sicilia accuses his wife Hermione of cheating on him with King Polixines of Bohemia. When she becomes pregnant, he banishes the accused lover and orders a servant to abandon his wife's baby girl in the forest. The Queen dies of grief; the King never forgives himself and, on the advice of an oracle, never remarries. The girl grows up among peasants and, years later, the Prince of Bohemia falls in love with her. The King of Bohemia, who doesn't know about the girl's royal blood, disowns his son and banishes the two back to Sicilia, where the girl is unexpectedly reunited with her father. Then, in what may be one of the most enigmatic of Shakespeare contrivances, the fallen Hermione returns in the form of a statue and then animates back to life.

Best of Both Worlds stays true to the basic plot of A Winter's Tale despite changes in the setting and character. It begins with an R&B showdown between King Ezekiel of Funktopia and King Maurice of Groovonia. At first, this seems like a goofy bastardization of Shakespeare, but the gospel score gives certain plot twists newfound resonance. For example, Ezekiel's name recalls the Hebrew prophet who envisioned a resurrection. In the musical, the character falls into a depression after abandoning his baby; a chorus tells him to "Let A Little Sunshine In" as he falls to his knees and holds on to a book that clearly symbolizes the Bible. The girl of this play is raised by strippers and whores who are decked out in Playboy bunny ears and sing a "Bunny Song" that's loaded with Easter imagery. When father and daughter are reunited, Ezekiel sings, "Forgive me, for I know not what I did." The resurrection that follows takes on an added significance during the closing number, "Glorious."

In this light, Best of Both Worlds is a Christmas story at heart, so it's no accident that the show opened for a limited run during the holiday season. While it might be too heavy-handed for some tastes, it has something to offer audiences of all beliefs and denominations. Diedre Murray's pulsating music is performed live by a dynamic quartet. The show is thrilling for Shakespeare enthusiasts, essential for gospel devotees, and an exciting new work for fans of the American musical.

One small qualifier: The adaptation tries to dazzle the audience past its heavy exposition, so the show gets off to a clumsy start. But after the first few songs, it's all gravy, thanks in no small part to the solid, energetic cast. Golden-throated Jeannette Bayardelle delivers a couple of showstoppers as the female lead, and Griffin Matthews and Kenita R. Miller make remarkable Off-Broadway debuts as the young couple. Charles R. King, Jr. and Shaun Hoggs do well as the feuding fathers, while Richard E. Waits provides expert comic relief as Sweet Daddy. Mark Wendland's set design is awash in reds and purples; lighting designer Kevin Adams splashes those colors around the stage and into the audience like a disciplined Jackson Pollock; and Gabriel Berry costumes the characters in effectively flashy threads.

The title Best of Both Worlds might be a reference to the lands of Funktopia and Groovonia and/or to the mixture of R&B and gospel forms. On the other hand, the spiritually minded may think that it alludes to life and the afterlife, while postmodernists could take it as an allusion to the musical's blend of high art and pop-culture. One thing's for certain: The show lives up to its name.