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Shakespeare goes alt-rock with The Verona Project

Northwestern University prof brings her musical adaptation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona to Evanston
By Web Behrens |

Shakespeare plays are a lot like brussels sprouts. Good for you, yes, but not always easy to get people to try. But Amanda Dehnert, an associate professor of theater at Northwestern University, has figured out a way to get people to give the Bard a chance: reconceive his earliest comedy as an alt-rock musical.

The Verona Project is the result—a radical reworking of The Two Gentlemen of Verona with a catchy, guitar-driven score that will likely appeal to junior-high schoolers and up. In early 2011, Dehnert spent five months reinventing it for the musical’s world premiere that summer in California. This October, the tale of confused teenaged love comes to Northwestern, where theater students make an ideal demographic fit for the lead roles.

It’s not Dehnert’s first experience with Gentlemen and music; she previously wrote songs for a Rhode Island production and was musical director for a production of the Tony-winning 1970s musical adaptation. All of which could reasonably lead one to assume she’s a fan. But no, she chuckles: “I had many experiences with it where I didn’t like it,” she says of this “Shakespeare problem play.”

The specifics of its plot make an aversion understandable. Two young men, Proteus and Valentine, journey from the titular Italian city and vie for the affections of Silvia. That’s basically a jerk move on Proteus’s part, because he also has a girlfriend back home. The play becomes more troubled near the end, when Proteus tries to force himself on Silvia, though the threatened rape isn’t treated seriously.

Dehnert scrubs that violence from her musical, which is now a truer comedy about love and loss. But what drove her to tackle this Project to begin with? Basically, California Shakespeare Theater asked. “Sometimes with things you don’t like, you should work on them,” observes the writer-director, best known to Chicago audiences for her work with Lookingglass, including Peter Pan in 2010. “You should try new things. It’s good for you—like brussels sprouts.”

She ended up overhauling the story and, in the process, changing the ingenue Silvia into Silvio, a man. Meanwhile, a male character, Thurio, becomes the female Thuria. The gender-swapping adds new layers of meaning to the story, because Proteus, who has a girlfriend, also set his sights on Silvio.

But perhaps Dehnert’s most drastic choice—for her actors, at least—is asking them to be their own band. Some of the students already had those musical chops; others had to learn an instrument for their callback.

“I get really excited about adaptations of Shakespeare that involve music,” says cast member Lillie Cummings, who’s honing ukulele skills for this show, “because I think that his text asks for music—because his text is music. There’s music in the rhythms and in his words.”

And of course, there’s the excitement of getting to perform like a pop star. “We get to just rock out,” Cummings says.

Programming-wise, it’s a smart fit for Northwestern’s Theatre and Interpretation Center, which recently produced two other rock musicals with young casts, Rent and Spring Awakening. Both of those shows drew an audience that included high schoolers.

“I don’t know what age group is too young for The Verona Project,” Dehnert says. “I know I had seven-year-olds seeing it in California.” No verdict, however, on whether the tunes will persuade kids to eat brussels sprouts.

Rock out with The Verona Project, beginning October 19. See Calendar.

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