“A sad song’s best for winter,” R&B queen Serena tells her young son in the American Repertory Theater’s “Best of Both Worlds,” the new gospel adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” playing at the Loeb Drama Center through Jan. 3. Unfortunately, such sad songs are just about the only agreeable aspect of the show; to deem anything the “best” in this disappointingly mediocre production would be to issue a gross overstatement. Though it offers a wonderful musical experience, “Best of Both Worlds” ultimately demonstrates the potential pitfalls of an emphasis on active spectatorship.
“Best of Both Worlds” frames “The Winter’s Tale” in an R&B world in which Shakespeare’s rival monarchs are now kings of soul, or “chocolate royalty,” and music has the power to heal. One of the kings, Ezekiel (Gregg Baker), devastates his empire when he accuses wife Serena (Jeanette Bayardelle) of having an affair with his former best friend Maurice (Darius de Haas). Despair at Serena’s banishment eventually leads to redemption in the restorative second act.
On a purely technical level, the design elements are fantastic, and all of the performances are outstanding. In particular, Jeannette Bayardelle’s Serena is strong, regal, and utterly unforgettable, especially during her show-stopping solo “The Way I Love You.” Diedre Murray’s music is lovely, even if it gets lost in the excess of sung exposition. Regrettably, compelling performances and extraordinary singing cannot carry a show this poorly written.
To be fair, many of the plot problems are no fault of librettist and lyricist Randy Weiner ’87-’88. Shakespeare’s play is inherently flawed, from its undeserved redemption of Leontes (here, Ezekiel) to the dull romance between Perdita and Florizel (now Rain and Tariq). However, in his adaptation, Weiner makes no attempt to remedy any of the source story’s faults. Instead, he offers pat lines that tackily acknowledge the tale’s weaknesses. While these little fixes are cloyingly cute, they hardly improve upon the story; in fact, they actually highlight its failings.
The weak writing is but one of this production’s many errors. What has been so successful in the A.R.T.’s season thus far—active spectatorship—simply makes no sense in this show. Weiner and director Diane M. Paulus ’87 attempt to break down the fourth wall and make the audience active participants, from the house manager’s opening announcement to the juvenile and unnecessary narration. In one moment, a character stops to ask if the audience has noticed the two men in trench coats and sunglasses who have walked onto the stage to visibly spy on Rain and Tariq. Yes, Mr. Weiner, we see them; there’s really no need to ask.
Yet, even if it had been done effectively, in this type of theatrical production, why should the audience be involved? What does it achieve, other than alienating those audience members who refuse to get on their feet at the end of the show for what is essentially a forced standing ovation?
This failed attempt at active spectatorship has deeper ramifications than the superfluous narration. In the most magical and dramatic moment of the musical—Serena’s statue coming to life—the blocking distracts from the beauty of the restoration. The actors peer towards the audience at the “statue,” only to have Serena actually enter from behind the set’s giant garage door in a burst of fog, light, and gospel song. As the resurrection is the emotional climax of the show, this execution is both disappointing and baffling. The fourth wall is indeed broken, but perhaps not as Paulus intended; instead, the audience is taken out of the moment, wondering what the characters are staring at.
This magical moment also leads to the abrupt religious awakening “Best of Both Worlds” seems to undergo. For an alleged gospel musical, the show hardly contains spiritual overtones until the very end—and by then, it is too late to force these ideas on the audience quite so intensely.
“Best of Both Worlds” seems to inadvertently illustrate that there is a limit to active spectatorship in the theater. There is nothing wrong with the audience simply sitting in their seats and watching a show in front of them, especially when it best serves the material. Ultimately, the gospel music that cures the soul and Ezekiel’s family fails to cure this production’s many woes. Music’s healing power has reached its limit.
—Staff writer Ali R. Leskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.