Rat Pack stylings prop-up Bard’s lesser-known ‘Two Gents’ comedy

So what if The Two Gentlemen of Verona is probably Shakespeare’s earliest and definitely his least popular comedy? Those piddly flaws disappear ring-a-ding-ding when balanced by ballads crooned by Ol’ Blue Eye, groovy Swingin’ 60s production numbers, and an adorably ornery canine thespian.

The shady reputation of “Two Gents” didn’t deter the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (CSC) from staging this play about young men behaving badly as its 18th annual offering on the Common.

CSC Artistic Director Steven Maler never met a Shakespearean script he couldn’t tweak into a crowd-pleaser, or at least crowd-satisfier. Inspired by the musical interludes in some of Shakespeare’s other more popular comedies , Maler uses Rat Pack Era songs (both live and pre-recorded) to pep up this story about Valentine and his faithless “friend” Proteus, who dumps his own adoring gal Julia when he lays eyes on Valentine’s new crush, Silvia.

How well does interpolating song and dance into Shakespeare usually work? On the one hand, Hair composer Galt MacDermot won the 1971 Best Musical Tony award when he created a pop/Motown score for his version of Two Gentlemen of Verona. On the other, Kenneth Branagh miscalculated when he wedged 30’s Fred and Ginger numbers into his screen version of the Bard’s talky comedy, Love’s Labours Lost.

In the end, the current show on the Common (a bit engulfed in all the hoopla of Outside the Box) is entertaining in all its various parts, even if it never quite gels into a whole. All four leads have strong voices and execute Maler’s precise directions energetically. Peter Cambor undergoes a Nutty Professor style transformation from nerd to Buddy Love–type lizard as the perfidious Proteus. Andrew Burnap (Valentine) and Ellen Adair (Silvia) manage to be hammy and elegant at the same time. But British comedienne/belter Jenna Augen slightly edges out her American peers as Julia, Shakespeare’s first girl-disguised-as-boy role.

Among the large supporting cast Rick Park tickles as a Mafioso Duke, and Larry Coen as Launce yet again provides CSC with gut-busting line delivery.

Two dozen cats and chicks from the CSC Apprentice Company keep the stage bustling as showgirls, caddies, henchmen, cowpokes, Gilliganesque set changers, etc.

Finally, as fans of the movie Shakespeare in Love know, “Two Gents” features “the bit with the dog.” Four cunning canines rotate in role of Crab, Launce’s “cruel-hearted cur.”

Adding to the frothy fun are all the retro pop culture references hinted at by the Mad Men/ Saul-Bass-like graphics for the poster and program.

The free production runs at the Parkman Bandstand through July 28. Starting at noon on Friday, July 26, CSC presents a “Family-Day” of Shakespeare-related family-friendly activities and performances.

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