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I don’t often review theater with my shoes off, but the al fresco, come-as-you-are atmosphere of Shakespeare in Clark Park (SCP) prompted me to kick off my Toms and stick my toes in the warm July grass. If I’d been wearing socks, though, they would have been knocked off by Two Gentlemen of Verona—the first musical in the company’s 17-year history and an absolute knockout.
Broadway nerds may remember this adaptation, by Galt MacDermott and John Guare, as the show that beat both Follies and Grease for the 1971 Tony Award for Best Musical. Civilians probably don’t remember it at all. A product of its era, it lacks the staying power of more notable works by its creators, like Hair or The House of Blue Leaves.
But everything old is new again, as Shakespeare perennially proves, and the line from 1593 to 1971 to 2023 seems especially blurry when you consider the topics addressed in this vibrant treatment of the material. When MacDermot, Guare, and their collaborator Mel Shapiro debuted their rock- and funk-tinged musical, America was mired in the Vietnam War, with faith in the country’s institutions of power at an all-time low. Debates over abortion rights and women’s true equality roiled on. The notion of queer liberation had barely entered the mainstream. Sound eerily familiar?
You’ll easily draw contemporary parallels within the show itself and the spare but colorful SCP production, directed with verve by the mononymous Shamus. The titular lads, Valentine (Bryant Fleming) and Proteus (Roberto Delgado), undercut each other while treating women disposably. After swooning for Proteus, the initially headstrong Julia (Vanesa Gomez) finds herself pregnant and unsure of her next move. And in Milan, where both boys are sent to better themselves, the winsome Sylvia (Camille Young) gradually learns that her suitors love the idea of her rather than her actual being. Of course, to her father, the preening and pernicious Duke (Andrew Carroll, an arrogant riot), she is little more than property.
There are moments that resonate deeply in the current moment. A song in which the chorus advises Julia whether or not to have her baby takes on a disturbing weight in the post-Roe climate where the bodily autonomy of birthing people seems more precarious than ever. And the Duke’s use of warmongering as a political tool has never lost its relevance, especially to audiences who came of age amid the more recent endless wars. The performers and Shamus wrestle with the uncomfortable elements of the past, too, as when they explain—a bit didactically—why they won’t perform a scene that features Proteus assaulting Sylvia.
Like MacDermott’s Hair, the ultimate musical of the 1960s, Two Gents wraps its social commentary in infectiously catchy entertainment. There’s hardly a song without an earworm of a hook and, taken in total, the score represents a rich tapestry of American musical styles. Guare’s sly playwriting humor shines through in entendre-laden numbers like “Pearls,” a bawdy bagatelle performed by Proteus’s servant Launce (the spritely Wyatt Flynn). Despite occasional, minor coordination issues with the music, the vocal quality of the cast is at an unusually high level.
Delgado, a recent UArts graduate, nails the caddish and cavalier spirit of his character, but his honeyed voice proves fiendishly seductive. Fleming and Young blow the proverbial roof off the joint in the sultry “Night Letter.” Powerhouse vocalist Lexi Thammavong brings a deep pathos to the Brechtian “Land of Betrayal,” a protest song disguised as a lament.
Worth braving the heat
Shamus and the design team smartly utilize their company’s scant resources. Costumes by Anna Sorrentino evoke the 1970s without directly replicating them. Tiara Nock’s choreography looks endearingly DIY. The sound design, by Chris Sannino and Mike Morrongiello, renders every lyric intelligible—something even major musical producers in Philadelphia cannot consistently manage. This is certainly a Goliath of a production realized on David’s budget.
SCP also clearly draws out an appreciative community audience. Even as temperatures approached 90 degrees on opening night, theatergoers of various ages and backgrounds came together and enjoyed the high-energy performance, often matching the actors onstage with vocal reactions. A word to the wise, though: with a heatwave expected for the remainder of the run, be sure to hydrate and remember a good hat. But if you are able, the heat index shouldn’t keep you away from this much fun.
What, When, Where
Two Gentlemen of Verona: The Musical. By Galt MacDermott, John Guare, and Mel Shapiro; directed by Shamus. Free (registration recommended, but not required). Shakespeare in Clark Park. Through July 30, 2023, at the Bowl in Clark Park, 4398 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 764-5345 or shakespeareinclarkpark.org.
Clark Park is an outdoor venue. The show takes place on the grass, and audiences must navigate a low hill for seating close to the performance. There are portable restrooms onsite. Patrons with specific accessibility questions may contact [email protected].
Masks are not required.
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