In the second act of The Winter’s Tale, Queen Hermione asks her boy Mamilius to tell her a merry story. He declines, saying, “A sad tale’s best for winter.” But composer Diedre Murray, lyricist Randy Weiner, and writer-director Diane Paulus have decided that a funkadelic one would better suit the season. In their new musical, they’ve pinched the plot of Shakespeare’s romance, adding an r&b score and an updated setting.
“Once upon a time, a long time ago”—which seems to be the late ’70s, judging by the extravagant use of leather—two r&b kings ruled the music world. Ezekiel (Charles R. King Jr.), leader of Funktopia, and Maurice (Shaun Hoggs), potentate of Groovonia (doubtless a neat relative of Stankonia), have just returned from a successful nine-month tour. Ezekiel is crazy in love. Very crazy. He develops a brutal and groundless jealousy, assuming a liaison between his pregnant wife, Serena (Jeanette Bayardelle), and Maurice. Who knew Ike and Tina had classical precedents?
His rage leads to the exile of Maurice, the death of his wife and son, and the abandonment of his newborn (apparently he isn’t a fan of paternity testing). As in The Winter’s Tale, the second half of the play takes place in the rival kingdom where Maurice’s son Tariq and Ezekiel’s daughter Rain now live. In place of the shepherd is Sweet Daddy, the impresario of the Bunny Hutch strip club, and it’s a rather naughty revue which replaces the sheep-shearing festivities. “With heigh! With heigh! . . . /While we lie tumbling in the hay” transmutes to “We git behind ’em doggy-style/And lick them bunnies clean.” Ah, poesy.
Husband-and-wife team Weiner and Paulus have collaborated in several Shakespeare modernizations, including the highly successful The Donkey Show (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), as well as Club 12 (Twelfth Night), and The Karaoke of Errors. If the writing isn’t always inspired (after all, there are only so many rhymes for “sweet caress”), they take a playful attitude to the source material with fairly happy results. Murray’s score takes a similar approach to popular music, referencing r&b, as well as gospel, funk, and pop—yet tricking them out neatly for musical theater with the addition of punctuated caesuras and cymbal-heavy finishes.
Paulus directs in broad but effective strokes, though perhaps she relies tooheavily on audience participation. The Julia Miles Theater crowd, though apparently enjoying themselves, were reluctant contributors. Exhortations to “get up” and “start up” were politely declined. Even the slick Sweet Daddy had to pause and ad-lib, “Oh, it’s like pulling teeth.” And that’s a shame; this project’s toothsome.