A gifted young cast directed by one of SoCal’s finest, a gorgeous score, and romance and comedy in equal measure are several of the best reasons to catch Cal State Fullerton’s blackbox staging of Illyria, Peter Mills’ musicalization of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night*. Add to that the unlikelihood of a major L.A. theater miraculously discovering Illyria’s existence, and anyone who loves musicals should make it a point not to miss this largely unknown gem.

Opening the evening’s merriment is our not-so-foolish jester host Feste (Charles McCoy), who introduces us to Shakespeare’s cast of characters in Illyria’s extended and oh-so-melodious title song, during which he is joined by Olivia (Kellianne Safarik), in mourning for her late brother and not at all interested in the attentions of lovestruck Duke Orsino (Dominic Leslie), and by Viola (Alexis Ritchey), shipwrecked in Illyria and mistakenly believing her twin brother Sebastian lost at sea.

Assuming her “late” brother’s name and identity as a means of self-protection in a strange new land, Viola soon finds herself hired as Orsino’s “manservant Sebastian” and sent over to Olivia’s place to plead his case. As for Olivia (who believes Viola to be a handsome youth of the male persuasion), the formerly sad damsel now finds herself as head over heels in love with Orsino’s messenger as Duke Orsino is with her, and to further complicate matters, guess which lady-in-gentleman’s-drag can’t stop from thinking about her handsome young boss?

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Illyria, Olivia’s drunken oaf of an uncle Toby (Antwone Sylvester Barnes), her saucy, sassy maid Maria (Julie Cardia), and the bumbling fop known as Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Michael Dashefsky) conspire to convince Olivia’s vain, prissy, self-important steward Malvolio (Kirk Schuyler Lawson) that his mistress has a thing for him, especially when he wears his canary-yellow, cross-gartered stockings.

To make matters even more complicated, who should show up on Illyria’s shores but the real Sebastian (Bren Thor Johnson), rescued by seaman Antonio (Rubén Carbajal) and a “dead ringer” for his sister-in-drag. (Illyria’s most hilarious running gag has everyone confusing the not-at-all-alike Ritchey and Johnson.)

With songs as hummable as those Mills has written for Illyria, a delightful, easy-to-follow book that wisely eschews iambic pentameter for a more contemporary style of speech, and ten showcase roles, it’s a wonder and a shame that none of our top local theaters has given this thoroughly marvelous musical the fully-staged, fully-orchestrated production it deserves.

In the meantime, director Hayter (a CSUF MFA grad whose professional credits include the Chance Theater’s sensational recent staging of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and their upcoming West Coast Premiere of Lysistrata Jones) makes it abundantly clear that even with the teensiest smidgen of a budget, Illyria weaves a thoroughly magic spell.

As to just how barebones Cal State Fullerton’s staging in their off-campus Grand Central Arts Center intimate space is …

Try a single keyboard and a lone black chair on an otherwise empty black-walled set.

Fortunately, with performers as supremely talented as this cast of (mostly) Musical Theater BFA majors, about a dozen simple but eye-catchingly designed contemporary costumes, and some highly effective theatrical lighting, this Illyria looks about as marvelous as a shoestring-budgeted production can get.

And boy does Cal State Fullerton’s elite Musical Theater program know how to pick’em, the Classes of ’14 and ’15 promising to be every bit as bigtime-bound as past grads who’ve gone on to Broadway, regional theater, and national touring success.

McCoy’s charmer of a Feste and Dashefky’s wild-and-crazy Andrew show off the stars of CSUF’s Ordinary Days and All Shook Up in fresh new eye-opening lights. Meanwhile, Barnes, Carbajal, Johnson, Lawson, Leslie, Ritchey, and Safarik step out of ensemble tracks for their very first CSUF starring roles, and each delivers an absolute gem of a performance.

Ritchey and Safarik not only have the requisite stage presence and dramatic/comedic chops, the duo have two of the most gorgeous sopranos you’ll hear (both legit and belty), showcased together in the bluesy “Undone” and opposite Leslie’s rich baritone in the exquisite Act One closer “Save One,” which has the trio lamenting the one quality lacking in the object of his or her affection—requited love.

Leslie, picked straight out of high school back in 2010 for Actors Co-op’s Merrily We Roll Along, now gets to show off his classic musical theater leading man credentials in a CSUF production as does the equally appealing, equally talented Johnson.

As Maria, MFA student Cardia (a Scenie-winner as Paulette in Moonlight Stages’ 2012 production of Legally Blonde) sets the bar high for her young cohorts in comedy, each of whom takes the challenge and comes out a comedic/vocal winner, whether it’s the charismatic Dashefsky or the charming Barnes or the lithe and lanky Lawson, whose Sir Andrew proves the most outrageously, deliciously scene-stealing of them all. Add to that a terrific Carbajal (and Chandler Burke’s entirely able cameo as a character known only as “Guard”) and you’ve got one humdinger of a cast, student or otherwise.

Hayter directs with abundant flair, and never more so than in the outrageously funny (and delightfully danced) “Cakes And Ale,” which deserves—and gets—a full-cast reprise.

Musical director extraordinaire Diane King Vann once again makes magic on a single keyboard, with Jake Forbes’ exquisite lighting proving just how vital this design element is to a production as otherwise blackbox as this, and fight choreographer Michael Polak staging some entertainingly comic swordplay.  Dayne Donnell is sound designer.

Rod Bagheri is assistant musical director. Chloe Haack is stage manager. Crew members Pedro Carachure, Max Herzfeld, Mitchell Turner, Matthew Wicks, Cynthia Zavala, and Skyler Zern insure that everything runs smoothly in the land of Illyria.

Having loved each and every one of the CSUF blackbox productions I’ve seen since 2010’s Violet (followed by I Love You Because, Godspell, Ordinary Days, and [title of show]), I was prepared to have a splendid time at Illyria—and that I did. That I ended up absolutely mad about the musical itself makes it one of Fall 2013’s most marvelous surprises.

*adapted by Mills and Cara Reichel

CSUF Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley
November 21, 2013

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