note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Sheila Barth
American Repertory Theatre, known for creating and bringing avant-garde, unique plays and presentations here, has outdone itself with Randy Weiner-Diane Paulus’ creative, moving operetta, “Best of Both Worlds,” in which the audience and the community are welcomed, with open arms, and spirited into singing, dancing, swaying, clapping, and overall, enjoying a fantastic time.
With books and lyrics by Randy Weiner, music by Diedre Murray, this play features a rotating group of Boston’s most celebrated gospel choirs, including community, university and church choirs. Although it’s billed as a holiday musical special that’s bursting with rhythm and blues and gospel sounds for the entire family, there are some scenes that are unsuitable for young theatergoers. Nevertheless, the theater and Tony Award-winning Diane Paulus, (ART artistic director), have spared nothing to bring the best and finest of talent to this modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” described as “a soulful revisioning of heartbreak and redemption, when jealousy breaks people apart, but eventually are able to redeem their bonds of faith, family and forgiveness.” That may sound like a burdensome, dark tale, but it isn’t. It’s a romp through two R&B kings’ realms, with the Shakespearean theme of love and unwarranted jealousy, leading to harmful circumstances and loss, and ultimate happiness. However, this isn’t your classical, ancient times and characters here. Instead of riding on a chariot or steed, our heroes and entourage arrive on stage in a 1950s winged, purple Cadillac convertible, singing and stomping away.
Briefly, King Ezekiel invites his friend and fellow rock king Maurice to come and stay for awhile but becomes insanely jealous when his pregnant wife Serena pays attention to Maurice. He banishes Serena, who delivers a baby girl in rude surroundings, then tells his henchman, 8-Ball, to get rid of the baby. Ezekiel’s only son, Mamillius, missing his mother, dies literally of heartbreak; Serena swoons into death; and the abandoned baby, Rain, is found and raised by a panhandler who opens a sleazy stripper club, the Bunny Hutch. Ironically, Maurice’s son Tarik meets and falls in love with now-16-year-old Rain, but Ezekiel’s former friend, Camillo, who saved Maurice and fled when Ezekiel became cruel, recognizes 16-year-old Rain, and brings the young couple to contrite Ezekiel. In the meantime, Queen Violetta, Ezekiel’s mom, who predicted he’d never find happiness until Rain returned to the kingdom, reveals she has a statue of Serena, which she magically transforms into the living, breathing former queen, and everyone lives together happily ever after.
The rapture here is in the music, with splendid performers, whose uplifting voices soar. Gregg Baker is mesmerizing, his deep, rich baritone stunning, while Jeanette Bayardelle as Serena brings the house down during her solos and duets. Mary Bond Davis as Violetta and also as a naughty lady in the Bunny Hutch is fantastic, her handsome voice powerful. She’s regal as the queen and comical as the exotic dancer, especially when she wanders through the audience, tempting unsuspecting men. Brianna Horne as innocent, sweet Rain, and Lawrence Stallings as her lover, Tariq, and the shiftless 8-Ball, also shine.
Darius De Haas‘ tenor is sharp, strong, as Maurice; Nikkieli DeMone is delightful as Camillo; Cleavant Derricks as the narrator and Sweet Daddy, Rain’s adoptive dad and owner of the Bunny Hutch, is a hoot; and youngster Sebastien Lucien is touching, tender as the grief-stricken Mamillius. He also dances and spins robotically and acrobatically.
While composer Diedre L. Murray’s songs aren’t outstanding and won’t win her a Grammy, the music is memorable, hummable, and decidedly rhythmic, at times bordering a revivalist jubilee, making eager audiences rise, clap their hands, and rejoice in this outstanding play. Musicians Michael Mitchell, James Peterson, Fred Woodard, Wesley Wirth and Yoron Israel, seated on stage, are fabulous, as are the accompanying community choirs, who are, indeed, the heralded Glorious Voices.
Box Info: Two-act musical, presented by American Repertory Theater (ART) now through January 3; Dec. 23, 29, 30, 7:30 p.m., Dec. 26, Jan. 2, at 2,8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 27, 2,7 p.m.; Friday, Jan. 1, 8 p.m.; Thursday, Dec. 31, 2, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 3, at 2 p.m., on the Loeb Drama Center Stage, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. Tickets are $25-$75. For tickets, call 617-547-8300 or visit www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org.