I am, I suppose, old. I was at the press opening of the original production of Two Gentlemen of Verona in Central Park, so many years ago, and in a New York so different that it might as well have been the original play’s first performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men for all the relation it has to the musical’s current revival. Part of being old is that you know, for a certainty, that everything was done better back then. Memory always retouches the past; the present is naked before our eyes. So the critic’s first obligation is to suspect his own memories, and readers stand warned to take my comparisons, in what follows, with a good grain of salt.
Not that Two Gentlemen of Verona ought to be the topic of an epic study in comparative performances in any case. It was always a diverting, rather than a great, musical, rather like cheap champagne: It’s way too sweet, and the bubbles get up your nose something fierce, but once you’ve let it start to work, the pleasantly woozy feeling that the makers intended comes over you, and it doesn’t go away, leaving you with a delightful buzz on as late as the next afternoon. So the first thing to report about the revival is that it duplicates this effect of the original. The moon was uncooperative on press night, and the row of trees the theater has installed as this season’s backdrop blots out the lagoon irritatingly, but the wooze is still tangible in the air as the crowd spills out of the theater toward Central Park West. Believe me, worse feelings have been had while exiting the Delacorte.
Nobody has ever been particularly happy with Shakespeare’s notoriously flawed early play, a study in the unreliabilities of love and friendship. This musical first grew out of director Mel Shapiro’s dissatisfaction with the task of trying to make a work so stilted, flawed, and archaic viable for the cross section of New York groundlings who would be attending free Shakespeare in the Park in 1971. He called in one of his regular collaborators, playwright John Guare, for repair work; Galt MacDermot, having just produced Hair, was the Public’s composer in residence that season; and the result was this silly, fuzzy, spiky, appealingly goofy rock musical, which doesn’t repair the play’s shortcomings so much as float them on a sea of giddy tunes, buoyed by Guare’s dementedly dislocated lyrics, that makes all improbabilities bearable. “You’ve rent my heart, and you control it./If this is rent control, then I extol it.” Who couldn’t fall in love with such time-jumping foolery? When the Duke of Milan campaigns for re-election(!), with a promise to “bring all the boys back home” from a purposeless war he made purely to keep the public distracted, the foolery even takes on satiric stature, and the response Guare’s lyric for this song provokes in the Park these nights proves either that its sting has only sharpened with time, or that 1971 and 2005 are the same year.
On the other hand, they can’t be exactly the same year. Some different flavor has crept into Kathleen Marshall’s new production, the sort of thing that happens to wine when the preservatives are injected. This is partly a difference between Marshall’s prompt, clean-cut choreographer’s directorial approach and Shapiro’s, which was consciously woollier and a little bit wilder as well. The neatly segmented rectangles of Riccardo Hernandez’s set, outlined in tracer lights, and the tidy lines the chorus forms for ensemble numbers evoke not ’70s dance but ’70s TV dance shows, not urban street life but an urbane stylization of it. Marshall manages everything well; only the heady edge of the experience has been dimmed a little.
Marshall’s cast, as compared to the original, has distinct ups and downs. Norm Lewis’s Valentine, for instance, is an all-around improvement: Clifton Davis was handsome, charismatic, and a first-rate singer, but Lewis is all those things and a first-rate actor besides. I hope we see him more often in undiluted Shakespeare as well as in musicals. More should be seen, too, of Rosario Dawson, the Julia, who lacks experience but whose gentle beauty and emotional directness make her, to my taste, a more effective presence than Renee Elise Goldsberry, the Silvia. Not that Goldsberry isn’t gorgeous, sexy, and a powerhouse singer and dancer to boot; she is. But she proffers these qualities in a proficient, slightly impersonal way that makes me miss Jonelle Allan, the paragon of dynamism and sensuality who created the role. (I told you I was old.) Similarly, I miss Alix Elias, the original Lucetta, who caught the pain as well as the comedy in the mordant “Land of Betrayal”; Megan Lawrence, her successor, is much too busy showing you that the song is supposed to be funny. Most disappointing is Oscar Isaac’s competent but treacly Proteus; the late Raul Julia’s reputation is in no danger here.
Still, looking over my complaints, I can’t help feeling that their target is less Marshall’s production than the times in which we live. That our society has yet to learn the morals Guare and Shapiro were pointing to in 1971 is maddening; that in the interim our theater’s skills have increased and its aesthetic richness been thinned makes the situation sadder. But that Two Gents still holds the raucous pop and fizz of 1971 eases the ache, and that people who never saw the original respond to what’s left of the old fizzy flavor is even more heartening.