Review: Musical 'Twelfth Night' Suited for Our Time

by Adam Brinklow

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday December 2, 2021

Sean Fenton and Sophia Introna in "Twelfth Night"
Sean Fenton and Sophia Introna in "Twelfth Night"  

Musical adaptations of Shakespeare always seem like a natural idea, but in practice it almost never works out.

If you give the musical treatment to a great Shakespeare play, then it's difficult to create anything new that improves on the original — it is, after all, Shakespeare.

Whereas, if you pick one of the bad plays, you might be able to polish it up a bit, but then you're stuck adapting a bad play; it's a true no-win scenario.

But flukes do occasionally happen, and it turns out Kwame Kwei-Armah and composer Shaina Taub were onto something when they first conceived of this musical adaptation of "Twelfth Night," which just opened at SF Playhouse in a production helmed by Playhouse cofounder Susi Damilano.

"Twelfth Night," of course, already has a musical theme and a few songs to begin with, but more importantly it has room to grow: This 17th century comedy of hasty romances and mistaken identities demands that half the cast fall in love with the other half for seemingly no reason, leaving the audience with very little insight into what any of these characters are really feeling.

Ordinarily the solution to that problem is just to argue that it's not really that important — and, of course, that is correct. It's a party, lighten up, etc.

But in this case we have the additional resource of Taub's song breaks, which allow Damilano and the cast to pour out a lot of extra emotional context in just a few minutes. 

And yes, these extra character beats do add something both new and valuable to an old story, particularly in the case of otherwise shallow-seeming roles, like the lovesick but retiring Duke Orsino (Sean Fenton), whose preoccupation with bittersweet music is more relatable when we too spend time appreciating the same sad tunes.

Atticus Shaindlin in "Twelfth Night"
Atticus Shaindlin in "Twelfth Night"  

Some of the other musical numbers are technically redundant. We don't really need a song to emphasize that Malvolio (Atticus Shaindlin, last seen in the Playhouse's excellent "Cabaret" roughly a million years ago...) is a prat, but also that there is something sincerely sad about his inadequacies. Everything else about the character already does that. 

But if the songs squeeze a few extra laughs out of the shtick, then why not?

The plot, characters, and almost all of the unsung dialogue of this "Twelfth Night" is the same as it's ever been: Hard luck heroine Viola (Sophia Introna, from the Playhouse's "Groundhog Day," staged back when the idea of every day being exactly the same still seemed potentially funny) washes up in a strange kingdom after a shipwreck, believing her twin brother Sebastian has drowned.

She disguises herself as him for safety's sake, and takes a job with the duke, whom she immediately falls in love with while also quite accidentally seducing his love interest, the drama queen countess Olivia (Loreigna Sinclair, also from "Groundhog Day").

This staging imagines Illyria as a swinging party town in the style of a cartoon New Orleans, with a jazzy, bluesy, ragtimy score carrying everything. 

To be honest, it all seems like a lot to put up with, and while the loud colors of Abra Berman's costumes and Bill English's sets are a nice compliment to the action, the Mardi Gras mockup vibe often tries too hard, particularly with the cheesy opening number, "Play On."

Much better are the moments when "Twelfth Night" slows down and embraces the strange and bittersweet undercurrents of being a zany comedy that is preoccupied with death, destiny, and other weighty matters. 

The absolute highpoint comes during the knowing and quietly desperate scene when the fool Feste (an extremely confident and understated Sam Paley, sporting easily the best costume in the show) serenades Viola and Orsino while they privately agonize about their confused feelings. Perceptive moments like these can stick with an audience for years.

"Twelfth Night" is technically a Christmas play, but only rarely staged during the holiday season. Now it serves as a fitting capstone to a year of unease, heartache, happy reunions, and shared adversity. A true classic is timeless, but can still turn out to be suited best for our time.


"Twelfth Night" plays and streams through January 15 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street. For tickets and streaming information, call 415-677-9596 or visit SFPlayhouse.org.