This season's Teens on Stage work at Raleigh Little Theatre is Shakespeare's The Tempest. Prospero works his magic, Ariel flits about causing all sorts of mischief, and Fernando and Miranda fall helplessly in love. But if you were expecting the spectacle of Shakespeare's farewell to the stage, this isn't it. The teens have chosen a work that is an adaptation of The Tempest, conceived and originally directed by Lear Debessonet for the Public Theatre. This adaptation condenses Shakespeare's three hours by about half, and the show runs without an intermission. The unique aspect of this show, what makes it work, and why it is so apropos for Teens on Stage is this: this performance is a rock opera.
Todd Almond's adaptation contains fourteen songs, all written using as much of Shakespeare's text as possible, and adding Almond's own lyrics when iambic pentameter failed to fit. The result is a song and dance spectacular that involves a dozen dancers, and every single one of these 20 performers sings. Additionally, the show now has an overture, and we were treated to the performance of this by an ensemble that is made up of children in Kidznotes, which offers free instruction in orchestration to children from low-income neighborhoods in Southeast Raleigh and East Durham. We were treated to the Kidznotes Orchestra performing the overture, an ensemble of 13 instruments; and the Kidznotes Choir joined in to add real depth to several of the songs. These 15 children are all pre-teen, and the children's chorus was a really beautiful addition to this original music.
The overture was arranged and orchestrated by Musical Director Shane W. Dittmar, and was decidedly classical. But the opening song, sung by Ariel and performed by the cast, had a rock flavor. This set the tone for the rest of the show. One of the best parts of this arrangement was the actors' ensemble, who played what I call the "Elements:" Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire. These are actually Shakespeare's island elves and fairies, but because they manipulate the elements to achieve their desires, I like the Elements as a description. For this first song, "The Edge of Belief," we witnessed the Elements stir up and command the mighty tempest that brings Prospero's hapless enemies to him. Using a huge blue gauze to represent water, the cast creates a truly sensational tempest, roiling the sea and terrorizing the passengers of the helpless ship in Prospero's control. There is some spectacularly creative choreography here by Jess Barbour, and this prologue is so complex, it dazzled us to see these actors and dancers performing at such intricate and well-executed levels.
We did get a good modicum of Shakespeare's original text, especially from a young man named Ricky Hall as Prospero. Hall has quite a long resume, having performed all over Raleigh and now participating in his fifth show at RLT. As is true in the original text, the lion's share of dialogue goes to Prospero, and Hall handled it with a maturity and grace that seemed beyond his years. Add to that a fine singing voice, and what you have is a performance triple threat! Hall handled Prospero's charges, from his daughter Miranda (Mercedes Ruis) to the "victims" of his massive ploy, with a combination of determined force and a tempered, growing understanding that vengeance is not going to satisfy him. It was a complex and controlled performance handled with care and high energy.
When we think of Prospero's island, we always recall two of its most remarkable denizens: Ariel (Sophia Gabriela Alba), a sprite of the wind, and Caliban (Will Taylor), a lowly creature who comes from the sea. Here, Caliban is covered in scales, and his poor lot in life has made him a bit addled. But both of these creatures, one lofty and one low, have been servants to Prospero for many a year, and they are ready to be free. Ariel challenges Prospero often on when, but Prospero is firm: not until his wishes are fully fulfilled. Caliban chooses to try and escape early, throwing in his lot with a pair of mechanicals from the ship, Trinculo (Emily Miller) and Stephano (Jesica Sophian). Stephano, without thinking what he is doing, offers Caliban a drink of what has to be rum, and thus obtains Caliban's undying adulation. These three "plot" (if sots may plot) to overthrow Prospero, and are tormented by the Elements for their pains.
While these noted characters all did a superb job, it cannot be overlooked that the major portion of this rock opera, after all, is the music — and in this case, the dance. This entire cast sings and dances, so to allude to the remaining cast simply as "the ensemble" cannot do them justice. It is these Elements, together with these fine actors, who create all the dynamic action on stage, to a solid and enjoyable rock score, with SATB harmonies and sometimes mind-blowing choreography. We were also given a stellar cameo performance by one of the Elements, Emma Johnson, as she performed the wonderfully lovely lovers' ballad, "All Things Bow." We were treated to terrible storms, complete with thunder and lightning, harrowing seas, and terrible winds. Lighting, sound, and stage effects were provided by Kaitlin Gill Ryder, Todd Aberts, and Jennifer Leiner. The company of Milanians brought here by Prospero also suffer strange and unusual assaults, trials, and hallucinations. Ariel is everywhere, performing her feats of power at Prospero's command, and finally earning her freedom. Even Caliban is freed, though he doesn't understand the circumstances. This musical interpretation gives us the gist of The Tempest as well as the added music and dance, and the result of this detailed and high-energy performance was spectacular. Director Patrick Torres has taken a total of thirty teens (including five techs, who all work tirelessly backstage) to bring us a truly enjoyable interpretation of one of the Bard's final works.
The house was not sold out opening night, but the audience loved what they saw, and word of mouth alone is going to sell this show out. I would pick up the phone right now and call RLT for reservations; they will not be available long!
The Tempest continues through Sunday, July 30. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.