Opening Nights: Illyria


Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., 781-9707, $25–$40. Runs Wed.–Sun. Ends Aug. 17.

What’s best about Illyria (by some distance) is Pete Mills’ book, a nimble distillation of Shakespeare’s dreamy love-triangle farce Twelfth Night. If occasionally a bit glib, the lyrics are enviably clever (these examples are typical rather than cherry-picked): “Woman—a frail vessel/A mortar lacking pestle” or “Once I was pale and unassailable/Under a veil and unavailable.” Lines like this are the show’s nearest approach to the play’s elegant magic, its once-upon-a-time bittersweetness seasoned with a pinch of bawdiness.

The cast of Taproot’s production, directed by Karen Lund, provides a bit of this magic too: Mark Tyler Miller as Orsino brings out the romance in his adorably clueless narcissism, and Daniel Stoltenberg adds some pathos to the put-upon Malvolio, deftly played midway between Sheldon Cooper and Niles Crane. What almost never does is Mills’ lite-pop score; there are mere hints of it in the opening number and in “Patience,” a moody Act 1 song for Viola (Helen Harvester). What bothered me about the music was not its style, bland as it was, but its complacency; I yearned for it to aim higher. I get the impression, from Illyria (first produced in 2002) and a few other recent shows, that writing a musical anymore is seen as a matter of first mastering a very specific and rigidly limited musical idiom, taking care to scrub it clean of personal idiosyncrasy, and then applying it to any project that comes along. Shouldn’t a unique sound-world be part of a composer’s overall vision for a show? And doesn’t he have some responsibility to at least attempt to live up to his source material, rather than just use it as a variable plugged into a formula?

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