Entertainment » Theatre

Best of Both Worlds

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Dec 4, 2009
Jeannette Bayardelle, Gregg Baker, Sebastien Lucien, and Mary Bond Davis star in Best of Both Worlds, playing at the A.R.T. through Jan. 3
Jeannette Bayardelle, Gregg Baker, Sebastien Lucien, and Mary Bond Davis star in Best of Both Worlds, playing at the A.R.T. through Jan. 3   (Source:Marcus Stern)

The third and final part of the American Repertory Theater's Shakespeare Exploded series this season is an R&B/Gospel take on The Winter's Tale, Best of Both Worlds. Imagine Shakespeare crossed with Dream Girls. Now turn up the heat a notch: that's what we have here, a musical that partakes in Shakespeare's dialogue in places but is certainly not shackled to the original play.

To be sure, none of the Shakespeare Exploded productions has been slavish to the source material. You need at least a glancing familiarity with A Midsummer Night's Dream to comprehend who's who and what's going on in The Donkey Show, the '70s-era disco riff on The Bard that doubles handily as a dance party (and probably the most fun club experience in town). Sleep No More, a haunted house version of MacBeth (in which the audience members play the ghosts, drifting in and out of the tragedy's scenes as they wander through four floors of eerie, mostly dialogue-free goings-on, including eels in bathtubs, terrifying banquets, and a mist-shrouded forest), requires an even closer knowledge of Shakespeare--and multiple visits--to put the pieces together.

Compared to the other two, Best of Both Worlds is downright conventional, setting the story in two kingdoms run by R&B singers. In the Kingdom of Ezekiel (Gregg Baker), ruin and despair descend after Ezekiel, seized with fear and jealousy, orders the murder of his best friend, exiles his queen, Serena (Jeannette Bayardelle) from the palace, and sends his newborn daughter off to an unknown fate.

Sixteen years, several outstanding musical numbers, and one intermission later, the action picks up in the Kingdom of Maurice (Darius De Haas), where Ezekiel's daughter, Rain (Brianna Horne), having been rescued and raised by Sweet Daddy (Cleavant Derricks), has grown into a fetching young woman--as has Maurice's son, Tariq (Lawrence Stallings), who woos Rain in the most gentlemanly manner, a fact (much like Rain's chastity) that is completely lost on Maurice, who takes exception to Sweet Daddy running a brothel.

The story is boiled down and set to music, with book and lyrics by Randy Weiner and tunes composed by Diedre Murray. The cast are all strong singers (well, except for the purple Cadillac, as much as presence on the stage as those who cavort in, on, and around it), but Baker rules the roost: completely invested in Ezekiel's rage, grief, and redemption, Baker's deep voice resonates throughout the space, and into the audience. Mary Bond Davis, as Ezekiel's mother, Violetta, is his match in force of personality and vocal expression: even Serena is vanquished by Ezekiel's towering passions, but it's Violetta who calls down the penalty for the King's reckless rage. (She also doubles in a hilarious role as a hooker with a heart of... er, with some mighty tassels.)

Nikkieli Demone as Camillo serves the same function for King Maurice, doing his best to stem Maurice's anger at what he thinks is Tariq's dishonor of the royal family. Sitting Tariq down, Camillo all but orders the young man to disobey his father, warning him that if he submits and sacrifices love, he'll forever regret it.

The message of R&B, like many forms of music, is the power of love to hurt, to heal, and to transform. The play embraces all of those things in its plot, which involves spectral appearances and miraculous returns. Gospel also plays a role here, chiding the kings of the earth to remember their place before the King of Heaven; local church and community choirs feature in the production, literally bringing the audience to its feet.

The musical performances and A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus' work as director of the play are powerful and uplifting, but the rest of the creative talent give the show the practical support to make it soar: costumer Emilio Sosa provides the right blend of snazzy, glossy threads and regal clothing (along with some beat-up garb for a homeless man and for a dejected king); the energetic light design by Aaron Black gives the musical performances a visual counterpart; the live on-stage band create sonic empathy; Riccardo Hernandez's minimal set gives us a black cinderblock wall with a large garage door, which is all the play really needs. (Anything more would have been a distraction.)

Shakespeare has exploded in the Boston theater scene, and the embers are still dancing: the experience wouldn't be complete without the soulful noise offered up by Best of Both Worlds.

Best of Both Worlds plays through Jan. 3 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street at Cambridge’s Harvard Square.

Tickets cost $25-$75 and can be obtained online at www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org or via phone at 617-547-8300.

Performance schedule: Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. (excepting Thursday, Dec. 24; a special Thursday matinee is scheduled for Dec. 31 at 2:00 p.m.); Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. (excepting Friday Dec. 25 and Dec. 31); Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.; and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. (excepting Sunday, Jan. 3).

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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