Review: Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night,’ a musical adaptation at SF Playhouse (*****)

The entire ensemble of SF Playhouse’s musical “Twelfth Night” weaves a magical tapestry of music, poetry, and comedy. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

“Twelfth Night” seems to be everybody’s favorite Shakespearean comedy. And why wouldn’t it be? The hapless, puritanical Malvolio, mercilessly tricked and humiliated by his arch-nemesis Sir Toby Belch and Belch’s beloved, the servant Maria, is probably one of the funniest characters ever created for the English theatre. And the multiple romances—both conventional and queer as fuck—as seen through the tolerant eyes of the wise Fool Festes are as poetical as anything else Shakespeare described. And old Will knew from love, right? 

With its extreme comedy, queer romances, mistaken identities, and wild romance, Twelfth Night offers a troupe of actors about as much opportunity for fun as anything ever staged, and, under Susi Damilano’s light footed direction, this company makes the best of it. 

The musical adaptation conceived by Kwame Kwei Armah with lyrics and music by Shaina Taub was first produced in Central Park by New York’s Public Theatre in a successful 2016 production that ran for only four nights. SF Playhouse’s production is the West Coast premiere and it is a slam bang winner. 

Shakespeare’s Illyria is Italian Commedia translated in this production to a fantastical New Orleans, with music provided by an enthusiastic Jazz Band. In fact, the show opens with a jumping New Orleans style Jazz funeral which introduces a key plot point: Countless Olivia’s brother has died, and she insists that she will not respond to suitors as she plans to mourn for several years. The blackest of mourning costumes, however, cannot disguise her intense sexuality as portrayed by the riveting Loreigna Sinclair whose hips could one day endow the Smithsonian. As the story goes, the Duke Orsino (a soulful Sean Fenton) will not be denied and insists on wooing her nonetheless. And there things get complex, as Orsino sends his newly hired man servant Cesario (who happens to be the woman Viola in disguise) to plead his case. Viola falls in love with Orsino who, a bit confused, falls in love with both Cesario/Viola and Olivia, and Olivia is a goner for Cesario as well. Confused? Don’t worry: just go see this play and have a lot of fun figuring it all out. 

And then there is the famous subplot of the gulling of Malvolio by Sir Toby Belch and comedy doesn’t get any funnier. Michael Gene Sullivan (who knows something about commedia) is a scrumptious Sir Toby, and, as his beloved Maria, Cathleen Riddley (a marvelous actress of whom we see far too little) is equally delicious. 

In an ensemble piece such as this, it seems odd to call out any single performance, but Atticus Shaindlin’s Malvolio cannot be denied. He gets to deliver a show stopping musical number (“Count Malvolio”) which may be one of the funniest turns I have ever witnessed. I was not the only audience member who nearly fell out of their seat laughing, and he certainly brought the house down. 

Only space limitations prevent me from devoting a paragraph each to every actor in this production. This “Twelfth Night” is ensemble work of exceptional excellence. 

The deceptively simple set and projections by Bill English, Heather Kenyon and Terry Hulsker are all perfectly fitting, as were the costumes designed by Abra Berman. 

And kudos to all the staff at SF Playhouse for their excellent COVID protocols, clearly stated and effectively enforced. 

“Twelfth Night” continues at SF Playhouse through January 15, 2022. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare. Musical adaptation conceived by Kwama Kwei Armah and Shaina Taub. Music and lyrics by Shaina Taub. Produced by SF Playhouse by arrangement with Concord Theatricals. Director: Susi Damilano. Music Director: Dave Dobrusky. Choreographer: Nicole Helfer. Scenic Designers: Bill English and Heather Kenyon. Lighting Designer: Abra Berman. Sound Designer: Teddy Hulsker. Projections Designer: Teddy Hulsker. Properties Designer: Stephanie Dittbern. Wig Designer: Laundra Tyme. Fight Choreographer: Josh Marx. Dramaturg: Dr. Philippa Kelly. Orchestrations and band arrangements by Mike Brun.

Cast:

Fabian/Ensemble: Tasi Alabastro. Andrew: Caleb Haven Draper. Ensemble: Amanda Farbstein. Orsino: Sean Fenton. Viola: Sophia Introna. Sebastian: Bear Manescalchi. Ensemble: Amanda Le Nguyen Feste: Sam Paley. Ensemble: Tiana Paulding. Jon_David Randle: Antonio/Ensemble. Maria: Cathleen Riddley. Malvolio: Atticus Shaindlin. Olivia: Loreigna Sinclair. Toby: MIchael Gene Sullivan. Illyrian Officiant/Ensemble: Jamie Zee. 

Musicians (note – when two musicians are listed for a single instrument, they play on alternate nights):

Conductor/Keyboards: Dave Dobrusky. Saxophone: Howard Cespedes, Nick DiScala. Trumpet: Sonja Lindsay, Jason Park. Trombone: Derek James, Kevin Porter. Guitar: Stephen Danska, Mike Smith. Bass: Max Judelson, Amanda Wu Chroust. Drums: Russ Gold, Adriano Tecson. Keyboards: Sam Paley, Jamie Zee. Accordion: Sam Paley.




 

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