William Shakespeare’s darkest comedy A Winter’s Tale and the soulful Seventies sound of Bill “Ain’t No Sunshine” Withers make for a perfect match in A Wither’s Tale, the latest offering by the multi-award-winning Troubadour Theater Company and one of the Troubies’ richest and best productions yet.

As in the Shakespeare original, A Wither’s Tale’s funniest segments are in its second half, but even the more somber early proceedings feature enough Troubie gags to keep a smile on audience faces even as Withers’ music weaves its melancholy spell. 

A Wither’s Tale (director/star Matt Walker apologizes in the preshow announcements for the incorrectly placed apostrophe) sticks closely to Shakespeare, including big chunks of dialog played mostly straight.  Walker is Leontes, King of Sicilia—sorry, make that King of Toluca—who suspects Queen Hermione (Monica Schneider) of cuckolding him with his boyhood friend King Polixenes (Matt Merchant) of Bohemia.  Oops! That should be King of NoHo.  He orders his servant Camillo (Mike Sulprizio) to poison King Polixenes, but servant and monarch exit Toluca instead. Leontes then condemns Hermione to prison and when the child is born, he has Antigonus (Travis Clark) take the baby away and abandon it.  The baby, like Moses, survives.

Since this is at least marginally a Shakespeare comedy, all does end well for pretty much all concerned, including Leontes and Hermione’s child Perdita (Katherine Malak), the shepherd (Beth Kennedy) who raises her, Polixenes’ son Florizel (Brandon Breault) who falls in love with her, and Hermione’s friend Paulina (Kennedy again). Other characters who make their appearances along the way include Hermione’s lady in waiting Emilia (Erin Matthews), Leontes and Hermione’s crippled son Mamillus (Lisa Valenzuela), a pair of shepherdesses named Mopsa and Dorcas (Marissa Ingrasci and Heidi Brucker), an Oracle (Valenzuela again), and a Green-Eyed Monster (Joseph Keane).

As always, the Troubies-penned script peppers Shakespeare with the company’s own brand of laughs, including references to Lindsay Lohan and a trio of famous sisters:

–Black brows become some women best.
–Who taught you this?
–The Kardashians.

Performances are all-around terrific, headed by Walker, whose role here gives him a better than usual chance to show off his legitimate acting chops and R&B pipes in “Ain’t No Sunshine.”  (Walker doubles hilariously as a Clown.)  Kennedy matches him as Paulina, tough girl ally of the Queen, and as a shepherd whose flock consists of a single, pitiful toy sheep named Bobby. (It’s the shepherd who discovers the baby Perdita hidden beside “a baked potahto with sour cream and chives, and a CHiPs The Musical CD, for sale in the lobby.”) Schneider and Merchant make for a handsome and talented pair of Royals not in love, displaying both vocal and comedic chops. As the Green-Eyed Monster (the costume alone is almost worth the price of admission), Keane shows off a strong singing voice in “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)” and the gynmastic dance moves that made him such a standout as the Perky Little Porn Star in Naked Boys Singing The Movie. Valenzuela is a quirky delight as the Tiny Tim-esque Mamillus and belts out a powerful “Oracle’s Hands” to the tune of Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands.”  Thumbs up too to the acrobatic/rubber-jointed Malak and the rest of the multi-talented cast (including Jabberwocky in the role of Bear).

The Troubadour Band is once again led by musical director extraordinaire Eric Heinly on drums/percussion, backed by Kevin McCourt (keyboards), Tory Ruffin (guitar), Kevin Stewart (bass), and John Krovoza (cello/violin). The extended overture (a medley of Withers’ hits) sets the mood for a darker Troubies show from the get-go, and backs up Withers’ gems including “Just The Two Of Us” and “Lean On Me” as well as others with cleverly reworked titles and lyrics. (“A Lovely Night For Dancing” becomes “A White Night In Toluca” and “I Wish You Well” touts Toluca Lake hotspots like Bob’s Big Boy.)

LA Weekly Award-winning choreographer Ameenah Kaplan has the cast doing some of the best (and funkiest) Troubies footwork ever.  Jeremy Pivnick shows off his lighting design mastery, footlights creating dramatic film noir shadows when called for.  Sharon McGunigle’s costumes are appropriately Shakespearean (even the band members are in period garb and feathered caps), and check out the Oracle’s headdress, which doubles petite Valenzuela’s height.  Mike Jespersen’s set, Robert Arturo Ramirez’s sound, and stage manager Corey Womack’s props complete the production’s first-rate design package.

Under Walker’s inspired leadership, the Troubadour Theater Company keeps taking on new challenges like the recent (and highly original) CHiPs The Musical) and now Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, retitled in honor of its three-time Grammy-winning musical muse. For those with an eye to the future, next up is The Troubies’ annual Christmas show, the World Premiere The First Jo-El. (Be sure to check out Walker’s Director’s Notes for the long list Shakespeare plays “still in the works.”) There’s clearly a lot more Troubies’ brilliance yet to come in addition to the uniquely splendid A Wither’s Tale, the latest Troubies hit to take Toluca Lake by storm.

Troubadour Theatre Company, Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.


–Steven Stanley
August 26, 2010
                                                                       Photos: Chelsea Sutton

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