By Samuel L. Leiter
The trickle of Shakespeare-to-musical comedy adaptation business that began on Broadway in the 1930s with The Boys from Syracuse and Swingin’ the Dream has swelled over the years to where it’s now something of a flood. Just last week there was a Central Park musicalization of As You Like It, with a totally different musical version scheduled to open this month at the CSC.
The latest entry in the Bardic song and dance catalogue is the Boomerang Theatre Company’s musically melodious but dramatically deficient Loveless Texas, inspired by Love’s Labour’s Lost. It sings and dances its way through a radically reimagined updating of Shakespeare’s plot, unlike two more textually faithful recent musical retoolings of this lesser romantic comedy: Kenneth Branagh’s 2000 movie and the 2013 Shakespeare in the Park version. Like them, the new show is also set in modern times, this one in 1929, when Prohibition was in force and the Depression began (although it’s anachronistic for the show to mention it).
Loveless Texas is to its original what West Side Story is to Romeo and Juliet, a completely new work bearing just the outlines of its inspiration. It moves the setting from sixteenth-century France to east and central Texas, mainly the fictional town of Loveless, and New Orleans. Various secondary characters are eliminated but the names of those remaining reflect their (mostly French) originals: Dumaine becomes Boyet “Duke” Dumaine (Colin Barkell), Longaville is Kyle “Bubba” Longaville (Brett Benowitz), Don Adriano de Armado becomes Pastor Joe Don Armado (John Herrera), and so on. French words run freely through the dialogue and lyrics.
Those familiar with Shakespeare’s play will recognize some of its elements in Cailin Heffernan’s book (she also directed), which turns Ferdinand, King of Navarre, into King Loveless Ferdinand Navarre (Darren Ritchie), a cattle baron who decides to stop paying for the reckless decadence of his Roaring Twenties playboy brother, Berowne (Joe Joseph). He then hires Berowne and his old University of Texas frat buddies, Duke and Bubba, on condition they give up drink, swearing, and women for three years. He also employs, as a sort of flunky-in-chief, an old hobo of a preacher, Pastor Joe, whose ideas chime with his.
King makes a handshake-only deal to sell a piece of land to Gwen Soileau (Kimberly Jajaun), an attractive Cajun widow, acting on behalf the Beausoleil family; when it strikes oil, he reneges despite his reputation for probity. LaReine Beausoleil (Trisha Jeffrey), daughter of the Beausoleil patriarch, seeks to reverse King’s decision, bringing her and her Tulane sorority sisters, Rosaline Aucoin (Amanda Lea LaVergne), Maria Broussard (Blight Voth), and Kathy Bridge (Annette Navarro), into contact with Berowne and his frat brother co-celibates, leading eventually to a happy ending for all, with each of the twelve characters—including former Aggie football star Randy Costard (CJ Eldred), Shakespeare’s Costard shorn of his clownish antics—finding love in Loveless.
But to reach this happy conclusion, Loveless Texas must amble and shamble through an increasingly rambling production that, when I went, ended at 10:50, two hours and forty minutes after it started. Luckily, it enjoys a wonderfully pleasant score by Henry Aronson (doubling as the musical director) that, as its promos note, includes “swing, bluegrass, blues, Cajun waltz, two-step, and cowboy yodels,” not to mention Mexican-infused tunes, played on bass, banjo, guitar, and fiddle. Although the singing is just fine, especially when in the hands of LaVergne’s feisty Rosaline, I’d love to hear some of these numbers done by bigtime country stars.
All the tunes are worth a listen, standouts including “You Don’t Run Me,” shared by Kathy and her brother, Duke, which makes the most of the height disparity between the tall Barkell and the diminutive Kamata; “In the Bluebonnet Field,” which, while choreographically clumsy, is a rousing company routine; the bouncy “Move a Mountain/Lawyer, Letter and a Spy”; and the charming waltz, “You’re My One/This Is the Good Life.”
Michael O’Connor’s simple wooden set (lit by Michael O’Connor) allows for multiple scene shifts (albeit sometimes requiring visually intrusive stagehands) and projections by David J. Palmer. Cheryl McCarron’s period costumes are passable although unconvincing depictions of what folks were wearing in 1929. Heffernan’s by-the-book staging won’t win any prizes for novelty; she does better by the musical numbers (no choreographer is credited) than the flat book passages.
Despite their expressive enthusiasm, several actors struggle to make their cardboard dialogue, spoken either in Texan or Cajun accents, and stereotypical characters believable. It’s a shame Aronson didn’t choose to write a sung-through adaptation. There are also several odd casting choices, the oddest being the romantic pairing of the potbellied, balding, gray-haired, sixtiesh Herrera’s Don Joe with Kamata as the supposedly 18-year-old Cajun spitfire Kathy. ‘Tis not a consummation to be wished, devoutly or otherwise.
You may not wish to visit the real Lone Star State at the moment but, musically, at any rate, Loveless Texas deserves some attention. Even FEMA, though, might not be able to rescue its soggy book from the theatre’s floodwaters.
Photos: Yadin Photography
Sheen Center/Blackbox Theater
18 Bleecker St., NYC
Through September 24. www.sheencenter.org