Shakespeare’s got the hots for Viola, only this time round it’s not on the silver screen but live and on stage as South Coast Repertory enchants audiences with Billy Elliot screenwriter Lee Hall’s theatrical adaptation of Marc Norman and legendary playwright Tom Stoppard’s 1998 seven-Oscar-winning Shakespeare In Love.

 Dozens of movies have been turned into Broadway musicals, but you could probably count on the fingers of just one hand the number that have been transformed into plays, just one reason Hall’s highly theatrical take on Norman and Stoppard’s Oscar-winning screenplay merits event status.

Another is the sheer magnitude of the West End hit’s South Coast Repertory debut, twenty-one actors playing over four-dozen roles while dressed in what must surely be the year’s most gorgeously elaborate costumes, with a couple of Elizabethan musicians and a dog called Spot thrown in for good measure.

The tale these thespians have to tale proved so captivating that it took in nearly 300 million dollars at the box office when Shakespeare In Love swept the Oscars just under twenty years ago, only one reason the latest from South Coast Rep is likely to prove box-office icing on an already scrumptious theatrical cake.

 Moviegoers will recall how a writer’s-blocked Will (Paul David Story at SCR) finds himself owing scripts to competing theater owners Henslowe (Bo Foxworth and Burbrage (Louis Lotorto) as wealthy merchant’s daughter Viola de Lesseps (Carmela Corbett) finds herself considerably more taken by dreams of pursuing an acting career (then illegal to those of her gender) than of her dowry-hungry fiancé Lord Essex (Bill Brochtrup).

Things take a decidedly Shakespearean turn when Viola dons male attire in hopes of snagging a role in Will’s latest opus and, like the heroines of As You Like It, Twelfth Night, or The Merchant Of Venice, manages to arouse not even the slightest suspicion that the handsome young “Thomas Kent” is in reality a woman drag, nor indeed does anyone question Viola’s maid’s gender when a certain Lord shows up in a certain lady’s boudoir unannounced.

 Shakespeare buffs will delight in picking up on references to The Bard’s Greatest Hits sprinkled throughout. There’s a balcony scene between Will and Viola straight out of Romeo and Juliet. Viola’s relationship with her nurse (Amelia White) parallels Juliet’s with hers. There’s even an extended play-within-a-play sequence with the now madly-in-love Will and Viola as a couple of equally star-crossed lovers.

It’s hard to imagine a better vehicle to go from screen to stage than the love letter to the theater that is Shakespeare In Love, directed with abundant theatricality and panache by Marc Masterson on a set that, quite appropriately, takes its design from the Elizabethan stages on which the Bard’s plays found themselves originally performed.

 Performances sparkle, from the romantic, swashbuckling verve of Story’s Will to Corbett’s incandescent, gender-bending Viola to Foxworth and Lotorto’s unabandoned scenery chewing as Henslowe and Burbrage to Brochtrup’s deliciously noxious Wessex to White’s marvelously motherly nurse.

 Corey Brill commands the stage as Shakespeare rival—and possible ghost writer—Kit Marlowe, Elyse Mirto makes for a witty, dryly winning Queen Elizabeth I, and Nick Gabriel proves the Elizabethan equivalent of a 21st-century rock star as in vogue leading man Ned Alleyn.

Indeed, Hall’s script gives each and every cast member his or her moment to shine as both actors and as the characters they play (a number of them in drag), and that includes Stephen Caffrey (Lambert, Sir Robert de Lesseps, Burbrage’s Heavy, Abraham), Alicia Erlinger (Mistress Quickly, Molly, Lady In Waiting), Matthew Henerson (Ralph, Juliet’s Nurse, Catling, Petruchio), James MacEwan (Proteus, Waiter, Nol, Guard, Benvolio, Sampson), Aaron McGee (Valentine, Barman, Peter, Tybalt, Adam, Gregory, Guard), William Francis McGuire (Fennyman), David Nevell (Edmund Tilney), Bing Putney (John Webster), Adam Silver (Actor, Robin, Boatman, Lady Capulet), and Fleur Zanna (Kate, Lady In Waiting), with Ricky Abilez (Sam, Juliet) and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper (Frees, Wabash, Prince, Bishop) meriting special mention, the former as the loveliest of Capulets, the latter coaxing a tear or two when Wabash rises quite movingly to the challenge of speaking the speech trippingly on the tongue.

 Add to this musical director Scott Waara and fellow musician Lex Leigh’s live Elizabethan underscoring, some gorgeous full-cast harmonizing, and Annie Loui’s graceful late-16th-century choreography (Gabriel is dance captain) and Shakespeare in Love comes close at times to being Shakespeare In Love The Musical.

There’s also some exhilarating swordplay thanks to fight director Ken Merckx (Lotorto is fight captain), and canine charm thanks to Cinnamon Dempsey as Spot.

 Jaymi Lee Smith’s vibrant lighting and Jeff Polunas’s grade-A sound design merit as enthusiastic kudos as Ralph Funicello’s aforementioned scenic design and Susan Tsu’s stunning costumes.

Nevell is vocal/dialect coach. Joshua Marchesi is production manager. Roxana Khan is stage manager and Sue Karutz is assistant stage manager. Kat Zukaitis is dramaturg. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut.

You don’t have to be Shakespeare fan, or even familiar with the 1998 Oscar winner from which Shakespeare In Love is adapted, to have a thoroughly marvelous time at South Coast Rep this month and next. If, however, you are one, the other, or both, you will find yourself in theatrical heaven.

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South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
January 23, 2018
Photos: Jordan Kubat, Tania Thompson

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