We who regard musical comedy as the Godliest art take special satisfaction in Great Lakes Theater Festival artistic director Charles Fee's simple but elegant rendering of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. The reason for this giddy satisfaction is to see Fee — with one foot in Idaho — follow the template of Meredith Willson's beloved Iowa scoundrel, The Music Man's Harold Hill. Like Hill, Fee has ended up trading in his overwrought, houndstooth chicanery for a newborn tender sincerity.
As a matter of fact, we wish to appropriate 46 of Hill's 76 trombones to proclaim the company's lucid depiction of one of the English language's merriest gambols. Again it seems that those benevolent theater spirits at the Hanna are exerting their tasteful influence over the quality of performance there.
The cynics inform me, however, it is due to the intimacy and wonderful acoustics. Because the theater allows them to speak their lines more naturally than a less lively space would, the actors can create more psychological nuances. The intimacy allows us to witness the particulars, as a duke finds himself strangely attracted to his man (really a woman), or a brother and sister are reunited. We are finally able to appreciate every word of the "food of love" speech. We further celebrate GLTF's blissful banishment of past infernal gimmicks and distractions — not a VW or a seemingly amphetamine-induced rant in sight.
When we first encounter Gage Williams' byzantine, aesthetically pleasing set, we suspect there is something fragrant in the state of Ohio. We get the impression that a Mozart opera is about to be sung here.
The introduction of Sara M. Bruner's nearly drowned Viola thrusts the evening into a swirling sarabande. Even in tatters she manages to exude thoroughbred effulgence. Put her in a pageboy disguise, and she is suddenly the sauciest Pan since Mary Martin retired her tights.
Bruner is indeed the evening's fulcrum, but every cast member adds his or her own share of joviality to the proceedings. We welcome back Cleveland's own leading man, Andrew May, skillfully reformulated as a padded Falstaffian clown, Sir Toby Belch. In the challenging role of Malvolio, David Anthony Smith balances on the tightrope between buffoon and villain. He turns outrage into soaring comic arias while keeping his character sympathetic and human.
In a splendid ensemble, there are a few especially joyous notes: Jonas Cohen's Duke of Illyria, Orsino, for his princely ardor and conflicted passion; Eduardo Placer for his cunning, fey jestering and lovely voice; Jodi Dominick's Olivia, for balancing screwball comedy with aristocratic hauteur; and Ian Gould for making Sir Andrew Aguecheek a splendid painted maypole and foil for Sir Toby.
Although Charles Fee may not have been born great, with the triumphant overhaul of the Hanna — and particularly this stellar season — he has most definitely had greatness thrust upon him.