Driftwood Theatre brings their most ambitious project to date, an a capella musical version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, to Toronto's east end.
It’s midsummer in Toronto. And we know that all too soon it’ll be over, like some kind of blissful, humid dream. So it’s fitting that the play-of-the-moment is Shakespeare’s most renowned comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Canadian Stage is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Shakespeare in High Park with Richard Rose’s interpretation, set in modern-day Canadian cottage country. And this week, on the other end of the city, Driftwood Theatre opened their production of Midsummer in Withrow Park with a riskier twist—they’ve turned Shakespeare’s words into an “a capella rock-musical” (their words).
If that seems like a brave move, it is. Driftwood Theatre has been on the road with the show since July 12, and will be visiting 27 communities in Ontario by August 19; they call it the Bard’s Bus Tour. The idea of touring an outdoor play with multiple characters, special effects, an iconic reputation, a young cast, and few resources is intimidating on its own. But throw into the mix composing and rehearsing original compositions that can compliment Shakespeare’s language, and you’ve got one ambitious project.
And Driftwood makes a valiant effort. The creative team of director Jeremy Smith, composer Kevin Fox, and musical director/composer Tom Lillington began working on the music in 2002; they workshopped it in 2004 and finally returned to the project in 2010.
Beginning in the traditional spoken word, the characters eventually break out into song at key moments. The initial song is a bit of a shock to the senses, and unfortunately we lose much of the feud between the fairy King and Queen, Oberon (Steven Burley) and Titania (Alexis Gordon), which sets the ensuing romantic mishaps in motion. But much like Shakespeare’s language can take a while to settle in, the music finds its moments. When under the spell of a magical flower that makes you fall in love with the first person you see, it makes absolute sense for the young lovers Lysander (Christian Feliciano) and Demetrius (Nathan Carroll) to break out into song over their beloved Helena (Madeleine Donohue), as it does for Hermia (Stephanie Seaton), Lysander’s girlfriend, to become so enraged by the absurdity and join in the song. Spells from the meddling sprite Puck (Paul Dunn) find extra strength with a tune. And perhaps The Mechanicals’s production of Pyramus and Thisbe was meant to be a musical all along.
The dedication from the cast as well as the creative team, with several actors right out of theatre school, is admirable. Some members even pull triple-duty as the young lovers, the actors in The Mechanicals, and the servants of the fairy Queen Titania (lending their voices to toy dolls suspended from over-sized fishing-rod-like apparatuses). Promising newcomers, like Carroll and Seaton, are supported by more experienced performers like Dunn (with seven seasons at the Stratford Festival) and Andrew Scanlon, who plays a delightful Bottom.
But despite the best of intentions and the years of conception, writing, and rehearsal, what this production needs is more time and resources to make everything bigger, smoother, and sharper. Besides the technical issues that come with a touring production’s opening in a new outdoor venue, Driftwood still suffers from rough transitions, a lack of visual cohesion in the costumes and sets, and a cast that sometimes isn’t up to the task of conveying both the music and the language. In the end, it’s a greater idea than its current production makes of it.
It might not be as shiny and raucous as the Midsummer Night’s Dream happening in Toronto’s west side, but at least it’s trying something new. And for a show that has been consistently produced since it was written in the 1590’s, that’s surely something to be applauded.