Marina Brown, Democrat correspondent
Josh Weinstein practices his dance steps for the “As You Like It” performance scheduled for the Southern Shakespeare Festival at Cascades Park on May 12-14 2017.
(Photo: Joe Rondone/Democrat)
Never think that the place you live, the place with the squabbling politicians and the challenged airport, is a Southern backwater without enough culture to go around. Don’t ever think that the steamy nights and sizzling days and more spring pollen than a nose can hold are enough to keep creative juices from bubbling to the surface. And bubbling with enough local talent to make an extraordinary stew.
Amidst grassroots musicians, blues singers, classical concerts and choirs, dance companies, songwriters, numerous acting groups, and rockers, ethnic groups, gospel choirs, poets, choreographers, symphony orchestras, and dozens of solo performers it sometimes is just darned hard to choose where to spend your cultural hours. But here’s an idea:
Why not drop in for a night of a little bit of everything? The Southern Shakespeare Festival, May 12-14, in the serenely beautiful venue of the Capital City Amphitheater stage in Cascades Park offers up “As You Like It”, Shakespeare’s convoluted farce, so dizzy you may think Shakespeare had a little ‘borscht-belt’ shtick in mind.
In this production, set in late 1920s Chicago, rather than dirty old England, boys and girls get together, get mixed up, switch clothes, trick each other, and dance the Charleston into the wee hours. Shakespeare’s poetic language suddenly becomes understandable as the action leads the way. And an added bonus is that the audience hears for the first time, original music played and sung to lyrics by the bard himself. (Shakespeare was an aspiring Sondheim? Who knew!)
Artistic Director Lanny Thomas stands in front of performers as they practice for their rendition of ‘As You Like it’, scheduled for the Southern Shakespeare Festival at Cascades Park on May 12-14 2017. (Photo: Joe Rondone/Democrat)
Artistic Director of the Southern Shakespeare Festival, Lanny Thomas, says that it was “funny how the playwright’s words are elastic…and often fit right into 1920’s speak.” Director Thomas has taken the action from downtown Chicago, the hangout of tough characters like wrestlers and bootleggers, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where, in a forest, the monkey business really gets going.
Thomas, himself, is a true theater professional with degrees from Case Western Reserve, American University, and the California Institute of the Arts. He is also an actor who, among many other roles, played Romeo in the D.C. Shakespeare Festival and at the Sylvan Theatre in Washington. He has founded theater companies, directed dozens of plays, chaired boards at the Tallahassee Little Theatre, and is a founding member of the Irish Repertory Theatre. And he loves Shakespeare. He also knows that contemporary audiences respond best to the Bard when the setting is relatable. That is how the 1920s became the locus for the high jinx of “As You Like It.”
Thomas also knew that “music makes the world go around.”Enter, Stephen Hodges, Longineu Parsons, Heather Paudler, Longineu Parsons III, and Brian Hall — each musician a stand-out in their profession.
“It was a little daunting to be asked by Lanny to ‘go compose some music for Shakespeare’s lyrics’, says Hodges. “I’d say I bring a refreshing lack of complication to the task,” he jokes. Stephen Hodges may be a city planner by day, but his fervent avocation is musician — guitar, banjo, mandolin are his favorites. Hodges, who played in professional bands for years, has written original music for four songs in “As You Like It” and has adapted well-known ’20s tunes for the five-piece onstage group.
Best known of the group is Longineu Parsons, a professor at FSU and hailed as “one of the world’s finest trumpet players.” In demand on six continents, Parsons has performed for royalty, recorded with Cab Calloway and Nat Adderley, and performed with international jazz and symphonic ensembles.
Sitting nearby on stage right, and dressed as the other musicians, in period costumes will be Parsons’ son, Longineu Parsons III, a sought-after drummer who performed with Yellowcard and numerous other ensembles.
And bringing the mellowness of strings is Heather Paudler, an ethnomusicologist by training and Professor of Humanities at TCC. She plays dozens of instruments but will offer up her viola riffs in the likes of Sweet Georgia Brown and the St. James Infirmary Blues. On bass is Brian Hall, on the faculty of FAMU where he teaches jazz and performs with the FAMU Jazz Ensemble and his own Cuarteto del Sur.
Stephen Hodges, from left, Heather Paudler and Jake Armstrong collectively with three other artists make the Sheiks of Tallahassee, who will perform the music for their rendition of ‘As You Like it’, scheduled for the Southern Shakespeare Festival at Cascades Park on May 12-14 2017. (Photo: Joe Rondone/Democrat)
Hodges says that coming up with original music that works with the special cadences of Shakespeare’s words wasn’t easy. “I listened again and again to the words, said them out loud, and began to feel the rhythms and patterns inside. Then I introduced a few chords, got a feel for the key, and found the verse, verse, bridge, verse that would make up what might be called a “jazz lead sheet” — the pattern jazz musicians use when they improvise but have a structure to go back to.” Hodges says that’s one reason he chose the musicians who will actually take part. “I selected them for their jazz knowledge… and yes, I expect them to improvise on stage too.”
But the audience will be expected to add a little of their own energy. Director Lanny Thomas says that the Charleston is something the viewers will want to get used to. “Occasionally a train comes through at Cascades Park. You have to just ‘go with it’, ‘cause you sure can’t be heard over it.” That’s when the musicians will break into the Charleston, the ‘train music’, to make the moment fun.” But that’s not its only purpose. Democrat Insiders will be invited to two classes of Charleston conducted by choreographer, Idy Codington. The audience “showcase” will come at the end of As You Like It when Insiders will be invited on stage to wiggle their bums, cross their knees, and waggle a finger in the air.
Who says you can’t have it all in Tallahassee? A good play. Great verse. Get-down dancing. And some of the best jazz you’re likely to hear. And all on a spring night beneath the stars.
Contact Marina Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
May 12: 6-10 p.m. (play begins at 8 p.m.)
May 13: 5-10 p.m. (play begins at 8 p.m.)
May 14: 4-9 p.m. (play begins at 7 p.m.)
Southernshakepearefestival.org/ and shakespeare-program-schedule-2017/ for a breakdown of the many theatrical performances on each of the festival days and for tickets. Theater With a Mission, Quincy Music Theatre, a Sonnet Contest, Thomasville Center for the Arts, The Bardlings, and Leon High actors in addition to Charleston lessons for Democrat Insiders on Saturday will be held in the several hours before As You Like It begins!