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Best of Both Worlds at the ART

We went to the third production of the American Repertory Theater's Shakespeare Exploded festival last night -- Best of Both Worlds.  I wrote up some thoughts on the ART web site, but will expand on a few things here.

First, an overall summary -- Best of Both Worlds is a retelling of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale with two R&B "kings" taking the place of the two kings in the original.  There isn't a lot of Shakespearean text in the production and the entire show, including the narration, is set to music.  The narration was almost too detailed for my taste, but I made a point of becoming familiar with the plot of the original before I went.  That may not really be necessary with this level of narration.

The highlight of the show is the singing.  All of the leads are fantastically talented singers and actors.  The emotional high-points of the show, both positive and negative, were driven home by great performances.  And, the overall use of R&B and gospel music was great.  Even during the depressing first act, the music was enjoyable.

There is a stark contrast with the second act which is humorous, campy, and, ultimately uplifting.  The show is pitched as a family show, but I don't think so.  There are themes of adultery, prostitution, abandoning your children, etc., which I wouldn't want to expose to kids younger than their mid-teens.  Kids of all ages wuold enjoy the humor and music, but parents of young kids would cringe too many times at the adult themes.

On the ART site, there were several comments that the play was racially insensitive.  One commenter draw a comparison to the 19th century Minstrel Shakespeare which demoralized African Americans of the day.  I am not familiar with that, but I didn't find anything offensive at the show.  And, there were a good number of African American audience members, a real rarity for the ART.  They seemed to enjoy the show as well.  As my friend pointed out, some people feel that the only way to avoid racism is to hide the differences between the cultures of different races.  I feel exactly the opposite -- we should all appreciate, accept, revel in, and even be able to laugh at all that makes us who we are.

Overall, I thought this was fantastic musical theater.  The plot is interesting, the Shakespearean links are pretty tight, and the singing and acting are world class.  The show mixes a wide range of emotions with an uplifting and redemptive ending.  It's not realistic, but, then again, neither is much of Shakespeare.  The show is much more about the themes of trust and realizing your own errors of judgment.  With that, the R&B and gospel music will open it up to a much wider audience than a typical Shakespeare play.

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