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'Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits' proves the point at FST cabaret

Florida Studio Theatre's latest cabaret show is a fun a revue of Shakespeare-inspired tunes with a loose narrative.

Galen Murphy-Hoffman, Samantha Joy Pearlman, William Selby and Dane Becker perform in "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits." Photo by Matthew Holler
Galen Murphy-Hoffman, Samantha Joy Pearlman, William Selby and Dane Becker perform in "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits." Photo by Matthew Holler
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“Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits” is FST’s latest cabaret show—a clever grab bag of the Bard’s chart-topping pop songs. That seems counterintuitive, as Shakespeare lived and died before the invention of audio recording technology. But there’s a logical explanation.

It’s a revue of relatively modern tunes inspired by (or stolen from) Shakespeare. There’s a nice karmic balance to the whole concept. Shakespeare stole from Boccaccio and Holinshed. Stephen Sondheim and Tim Rice do likewise unto him.

The first act kicks off with a music hall vibe, then segues into Shakespearean rags by a motley crew of famous and forgotten tunesmiths. These include the syncopated rhythms of Cole Porter, (“So in Love” and “Too Darn Hot,” both from “Kiss Me Kate.”), two sizzling Duke Ellington numbers from “Play On” (an adaptation of Twelfth Night,”), and a bit “The Boys from Syracuse,” Rodgers and Hart’s knock-off “Comedy of Errors.” You also get a sprinkling of Elton John and Tim Rice’s overblown ballads from “The Lion King," which is basically “Hamlet,” with lions. There’s a jokey, Mel Brooksian tone to the whole affair. Think cross dressing, mugging and sexual innuendo.

The second act gets a little more serious. The feast of tunes with Shakespearean lyrics includes Galt Macdermot’s profoundly moving “What a Piece of Work Is Man” from “Hair” (yet another soliloquy by the Melancholy Dane), and “The Wind and the Rain” from “Twelfth Night”— the mournful lament of Feste, (the original sad clown), and the only known Shakespearean tune where the original melody survives. And if you’re hungry for a rap summary of “Othello,” as filtered through “Hamilton,” and performed by white people, you’re in luck. A funny number from “The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr, (Abridged)” delivers on all counts. The big block of “Romeo and Juliet” rip-offs include Mark Knopfler’s homage, three tunes from Bernstein and Sondheim’s “West Side Story,” and Nino Rota’s haunting theme from Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation—with lyrics by Henry Mancini. (Sad news for fans of The Reflections. “Just Like Romeo and Juliet” didn’t make the cut.)

Dane Becker and Samantha Joy Pearlman perform in
Dane Becker and Samantha Joy Pearlman perform in "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits." Photo by Matthew Holler

Dane Becker, Galen Murphy-Hoffman, William Selby and Samatha Joy Pearlman are all excellent performers with good comic chops and sturdy voices. Pearlman is the standout; her vocal range and control hits operatic heights. Banging away at ye olde electronic keyboard, all decked out in a floppy muffin cap, Jim Prosser looks like a long-lost refugee from Jethro Tull. (I mean that in a good way.)

Richard Hopkins’ direction nicely knits the antics together. Darren Server’s music direction is appropriately upbeat, except when the tunes get weepy. Susan Angermann’s costumes convincingly spoof Elizabethan garb while allowing the performers to breathe. DeWayne Barrett’s snappy choreography captures mood with movement. (First-rate, as always.) Thom Beaulieu’s lighting creates needful punctuation for the revue’s run-on sentences. (More on that, anon.)

The revue’s clever concept has the feel of a national touring production. Actually, it’s a retooled version Richard and Rebecca Hopkins original Shakespearean smorgasbord from 1999. (Missed it the first time, so I couldn’t say what’s changed.) The research must’ve been mind-boggling

William Selby, Dane Becker perform in
William Selby, Dane Becker perform in "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits." Photo by Matthew Holler

As clever as it is, the show’s not perfect. It could use a stronger narrative skeleton. Clearer grouping of songs by theme, era and composer might help. I’d also sharpen the narrative hook. There’s a loose frame (from Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick’s “Something Rotten”) where “God I Hate Shakespeare” turns to “God I Love Shakespeare.” I’d tighten that frame. The old gag from a thousand Danny Kaye movies comes to mind …

A kid in class says, “Shakespeare’s square!” His hip, longhaired professor, says, “Square? Why you … You know how many swinging hits they stole from Shakespeare’s stuff?” To prove his point, Professor Longhair starts the music. A brace of songs, all begging the question: “Does that sound square to you?”

Just a thought, gentle readers.

It’s a fun, smart show — one that never takes itself or the Bard too seriously. To Shakespeare purists, that’s like bringing a Whoopee Cushion to church. But it’s a loving mockery, grammercy.

If you really love the Bard, you’ve got to love it.


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