BY KEN CHISHOLM
Last year’s March musical at the Highland Arts Theatre was Wesley J. Colford’s original script and songs, Heart of Steel, which played to sold out shows during its initial run and had an equally successful summer run.
This week, HAT and Colford opened a new show, Dream: A 1950’s Midsummer Musical, which takes Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, transplants it to Athens, Ohio, and jams into it a long, toe-tapping list of oldies and high-stepping dance numbers for a solid, exhilarating two hours of big laughs, teen angst, romantic farce, and unexpected family reunions.
High flying nightclub magician, the “Obliterating” Oberon (Paul Gatchell) is in mid-act at the Copa when his assistant, Robyn (Hilary Scott), informs him, after sixteen years, she has found his long lost love running a greasy spoon in Athens, Ohio.
When they arrive, they find the elusive Tammy (Heather Merrill) trying to guide Holly (Margaret MacPherson), her sixteen-year-old daughter (and I direct readers to pause to do the math), through the perils of finding the right man. Holly is in love with heartthrob Johnny Angel (Wesley J. Colford), but Tammy objects because Johnny did not so much graduate high school as retire from it. Tammy wants Holly to go to the Big Dance with Dimitri (Matt Earhart) who has been talking trash about his ex-girlfriend, Suzie, (Katherine Woodford) calling her “Runaround Sue” (song cue, anyone?). Meanwhile, town beatnik Eddie (Rory Andrews) is not making any romantic progress especially with the diner’s perky servers, Patti (Lesley MacLean) and Nancy (Emily O’Leary).
Oberon, failing to convince Tammy of his love for her, resorts to a plan of revenge (naturally) involving magic potions from the local gypsy including “Love Potion No. 9” (song cue, anyone?). The romantic mix-ups, including a beastly transformation for Eddie, follows Shakespeare’s original plot until all is resolved happily.
Probably the best thing about Colford’s adaptation is that, what could have been well-done dinner theatre, actually has some real stakes involved especially with the Oberon and Tammy characters. Their maturity counterpoints the bubbly teen angst popping like ripe zits all around them.
Also distinguishing this production from most dinner theatre shows (and I have nothing at all against dinner theatre which I have always enjoyed) are the insanely energetic and fleet of foot dances choreographed by Cynthia Vokey. They caught the mood of the play and the era and were a joy to watch.
Musical director Barb Stetter and her band (Peter MacDonald, Doug Johnson, Kevin Colford, Ron Leadbetter, and Russel LeBlanc) brought an authentic zip to their arrangements. Stetter did especially excellent work recreating the lush and complex harmonies of the original songs before pop moved from the jazz-inspired Andrews Sisters to the existential wail of Bob Dylan.
Gatchell’s Oberon had a bit of Prospero in him and was equal parts bluster and charm. Gatchell has a long and accomplished professional stage career and he brought all of that experience to his work on stage making it a pleasure to watch. His scene with MacPherson when he finally does the math had real heart to it and was also a comic highlight.
Heather Merrill has a big personality in her singing voice which added a lot of “oomph” to her solo numbers. Her Tammy was a strong woman who was a great foil to Gatchell’s Oberon. Her magic-induced seduction of the changed Eddie was hilarious and sensual and the audience could see why Oberon fell hard for her.
Margaret MacPherson, as Holly, was a wonderful mix of Gidget and Sandra Dee. She has a lovely singing presence, can dance up a storm, and her alternating jumps from giddy teen romance to apocalyptic teen despair were believable and funny and often touching.
Less than two months ago, Wesley J. Colford was performing Hamlet at Cape Breton University and now he is a chipper teen idol, Johnny, in this production. That he is believable in both roles hints at his range and talent. This is probably his best singing performance I’ve seen and he had the audience rooting for the two love birds to get together at the end.
Less than one month ago, Matt Earhart was playing Shakespeare himself at CBU in Shakespeare’s Dog (he is currently in the Savoy Theatre’s dinner theatre). His Dimitri has some shading that makes him a rounded character and his vocal performance has strength to it. His frenzied rendition of “Wake up, Little Suzie” was excellent.
Katherine Woodford, as Suzie, made a sympathetic personality out of the script’s least defined character (did she really do any of the things Dimitri accuses her of?). Her vocal performance had some darker tones that grounded her solos and added depth to the group harmonies.
Rory Andrews as sad sack Eddie had many fine comedic moments, especially when he awakes with the head of a mule (well-crafted by Josie Sobol) which has the surprising effect of enhancing his sex appeal.
Emily O’Leary and Lesley MacLean, as diner servers Patti and Nancy, added a lot of sass as a kind of high-kicking Greek chorus. They are triple threat stage performers who added value to every scene they were in and probably had the audience wishing (and hoping) their characters had a story arc of their own.
Colford as director, and working with frequent collaborators Vokey and Stetter, gave the show a breezy pace; the ensemble scenes were polished and eye popping, the few intimate scenes had heart. With lighting designer Ken Heaton, he made the sparse open set alive with a variety of effects. Adapting the original Shakespeare play, Colford kept the best (including large chunks of the actual dialogue) and left out the rest (including the rustic players’ scenes which while great comedy do not advance the main plot). One major plot point, Oberon’s relationship with Holly, could have used a more definitive resolution. And, this is being picky, why Athens, Ohio? Why not Athens, Ontario? Or the equally mythic Athens, Cape Breton?
Dream: A 1950’s Midsummer Musical is one of the most accomplished and audience pleasing productions the Highland Arts Theatre has yet presented—and given their track record, that is saying a lot.
Dream: A 1950’s Midsummer Musical runs nightly at 8 pm at the Highland Arts Theatre until Wednesday, March 23.