The Winter’s Tale, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, has its share of problems, not the least of which are the time and tone gaps between Acts One and Two. Generally, owing to Shakespeare’s venerable verse (not to mention the sheer reverence for his name), these are problems that can be overcome in production. But wipe away the verse and add music and The Winter’s Tale Project, a musical import from Edmonton, Canada to this year’s NY Fringe Festival, has to work extra hard to do what Shakespeare could accomplish with the flick of a quill. Unfortunately, this production is not up to the challenge. There is nothing inherently wrong with making a musical out of one of Shakespeare’s timeless stories (West Side Story, anyone?). But it isn’t foolproof either and The Winter’s Tale Project makes for a widely uneven production with a handful of foolish choices.
For example, it is not unamusing to watch King Leontes’ irrational jealousy overtake him so suddenly in the first act. What is upsetting, at least in Shakespeare’s original, is the vehemence with which he feels the need to take revenge on his supposedly traitorous wife. But The Winter’s Tale Project is mired in unnecessarily exaggerated melodrama and leaves no room for laughs in its first act (the show is intermissionless, which is all the better as it can be assumed that a good portion of the audience would leave halfway through if one existed). Conversely, the show pleads for more melodrama in the second half.
After a full scene and a would-be In One musical number (if there were a curtain to bring in or set to change) about that famed stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear,” the audience finds themselves in Act Two: rural Bohemia. The play is abruptly awash with airy, comedic situations that The Winter’s Tale Project handles with a less-than-deft, but largely enjoyable, ease.
“Piggy in the Middle,” a song written to elicit amusement, isn’t nearly as successful as David Demato, whose Clown is pitch-perfect.
Sadly, by the end of the show the overwrought sincerity of Act One has returned. Furthermore, the last hope for redemption is washed away as The Winter’s Tale Project eliminates nearly all ambiguity about what is, arguably, the greatest mystery in Shakespeare’s play.
In case it isn’t already evident, The Winter’s Tale Project is not a show for Shakespeare purists, nor is it a show for those lacking saintly patience. The production does get better throughout its nearly two-hour run, but the payoffs aren’t worth the wait.