‘If music be the food of love, play on’: University Theatre presents musical inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ Nov. 9-19

By Kari Dickinson

“Twelfth Night” has long been one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies. But did you know it is also a lively new musical? 

Conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub, and featuring an original jazz-funk score, University Theatre will present this fresh take on Shakespeare’s classic Nov. 9-19 in the Department of Theatre and Drama’s Ronald E. Mitchell Theatre in Vilas Hall (821 University Ave.). The show promises timeless messages of empathy and compassion, along with music, joy, and lots of laughs. 

Separated from all she knows after a shipwreck — and thinking she has lost her twin brother, Sebastian — young Viola washes up on the shores of Illyria, and disguises herself as a man in order to survive. Sent to woo the countess Olivia on behalf of her new employer, the Duke Orsino, she instead falls hard for him herself. Hilarious mishaps ensue as Viola navigates this strange and wonderful new land, finding her true self and true love in the process. 

“Twelfth Night” is directed by guest artist Aimée Hayes, co-artistic director of The Tent Theater Company in Brooklyn, New York. The Tent, which Hayes founded with her husband, Tim Sanford, aims to nurture, support, and advocate for elder American playwrights and cross-disciplinary theatre makers, fostering connections among them and promoting their artistry. Previously Hayes was the producing artistic director at Southern Rep Theatre in New Orleans. 

Though this is Hayes’ first time in Madison, she jokes that she is “1/64th Wisconsin.” 

“We lived in Wisconsin when I was 7, way up north near Michigan,” she says. “What I remember from being a kid are the trees and the woods and the chipmunks.” 

As for Madison, she says, “it has this urban flair that I think is really cool. Everybody here seems to really care about what they’re doing.” 

The cast of “Twelfth Night” rehearses a musical number (Photo: Scot Shepley)

Hayes has conceived this production of “Twelfth Night” as something of a “Madison-filled Easter egg,” she explains, full of local references. “We even have a badger in the mix.” 

In addition to the show’s principals, there are 10 student actors plus two kids who form the musical’s ensemble, and each plays a character with their own back story. One is the “party guy,” for instance, who carries an ice chest and beer. There is also a spiritual leader, a farmers’ market character (or “gourd guy”), a muralist, and a family with two kids. 

“We’re having a lot of fun making these characters,” says Hayes, “and they’re within the fabric of the musical at every level.”

Scenic design by Dan Lisowski, an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Drama, reinforces the Madison theme. “His deep love and knowledge of the city environs has really been helpful and influences a lot of the architecture,” says Hayes. 

“The creators of this musical aimed to make a radically inclusive place, drawing from and celebrating the specific communities in which the play was made,” remarks Ann Shanahan, the artistic director of University Theatre and a professor in the Department of Theatre and Drama. “The creative team of this production, led by Aimée Hayes, have made a uniquely Madison-inspired Illyria, with resonances of our unique watery landscape, architecture, events, and people, and drawing from this iconic town to imagine and create an ever more inclusive world — here and beyond.”

The show’s creative and production team also includes Erin McConnell as music director, Aaron Thielen as choreographer, ZhiYu Jin as assistant director, Aly Amidei as costume designer, Megan Reilly as lighting/projections designer, and Claudia Martinez as sound designer. “A process like this is extremely collaborative, and it sometimes feels like we are one giant brain,” says Hayes.

In addition to nine public performances, a student matinee performance, followed by a talkback with the actors, is planned for Nov. 17. About 170 students from Baraboo High School, Mauston High School, and Sun Prairie East and West High Schools are set to attend, and the Department of Theatre and Drama is working with the School of Education’s Office of Professional Learning and Community Education (PLACE) to create a resource guide for teachers to help prepare their students for the experience.

Germany (left) and Childs rehearse a scene between Viola and Duke Orsino (Photo: Scot Shepley)

Sophomore Sydney Germany plays the shipwrecked Viola, who works for — and then falls for — the Duke Orsino, while disguised as a man named Cesario. A fun twist in this production is that Orsino is played by Germany’s real-life friend and roommate, sophomore Ava Childs. “We had never been on stage together before, so it was a very exciting moment for both of us when we found out we would be playing opposite of each other,” says Childs. 

“This is kind of like our friendship debut on stage, and I think that’s really special and really fun,” Germany adds. 

As actors, both Childs and Germany are playing uniquely challenging roles.  For Germany a challenge has been distinguishing how Viola acts as herself, identifying as a woman, and how she acts when disguised as a man. “We’ve been working a lot with physicality and how we can use that to differentiate between Viola and Cesario,” says Germany. “I’ve been very fascinated with, what are the big questions for Viola’s character, like how other people see her when she’s in these different versions of herself.”

For Childs, as Duke Orsino, it is her first time playing a character who identifies as a man. “I have just been trying to embody this character as genuinely as I can,” she says.

Love, mistaken identity, self discovery — and music! It all adds up to a great night (or afternoon) of theatre. Says Hayes: “What’s interesting about ‘Twelfth Night’ to me is that it’s always been on that wonderful line between the tragedies on one side and the ridiculous comedies of Shakespeare on the other. It does this wonderful job of straddling that world, where we can have some complete buffoonery, followed by something heartfelt.”

And rest assured, you don’t need to be a Shakespearean expert to enjoy this show. “I know Shakespeare can be kind of difficult and push people away, but I encourage people to give this show a chance because it’s just so much fun,” says Germany. 

“The music is great. It’s such a beautiful story about love and acceptance and seeing people for who they are,” adds Childs. “I feel like it’s got so many wonderful messages that I think everybody can relate to.”

So in the words of Shakespeare — which in this show will be transformed into song: “If music be the food of love, play on!”

Get your tickets for “Twelfth Night” now at artsticketing.wisc.edu or by calling 608-265-2787.

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