Shakespeare and rock ’n’ roll have made strange bedfellows from time to time, perhaps most famously in 1968 in Los Angeles with “Othello,” in which none other than Jerry Lee Lewis, a.k.a. the Ferriday Fireball and one of the founding fathers of rock music, was cast as the nefarious trouble-instigator Iago.
The Independent Shakespeare Co. has picked up that torch with its current production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Company co-founder David Melville, who also directs this staging, has placed the action in a ’50s setting complete with a live roots-rock band on stage throughout the show. The cast members even engage in a bit of swing and Lindy Hop dance moves at various points.
The idea grew out of an intensely personal experience Melville had after his father died recently.
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“My mother had died 20 years ago,” he said this week, “and so now we have to sell the house in England. I was looking through my mother’s diaries from 1957 or ’58 that she kept when she was away at boarding school.
“Most of the entries were about fox hunting, or some about boys, but it surprised me to learn that every week she stayed up under her covers listening to the radio — it must have been Radio Luxembourg — and she religiously recorded the top-10 hits. There she was writing about Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ My father was a classical musician and had played in the London Symphony Orchestra, so it surprised me to discover that about her.
“It connected to something in the play about the relationship between Proteus and Valentine, and Julia and Silvia, who are so very young and have immature ideas about love and the way the world works,” he said. “They’re like teenagers, and really the ’50s was the invention of the teenager.”
The band, which features Melville on lead guitar, serves up a large handful of ’50s rock hits for the show, from Santo & Johnny’s wistful 1958 instrumental “Sleepwalk” to the Skyliners doo-wop hit “Since I Fell For You” to Ritchie Valens’ “C’mon Let’s Go” and the relatively obscure Don Woody quasi-novelty rockabilly number from 1957, “Barking Up the Wrong Tree.”
Melville played in rock bands in the 1990s before coming to the U.S. and finding his way to found Independent Shakespeare in the early 2000s with co-director Melissa Chalsma, who is also his wife. They often alternate directing productions that have been staged in recent years at the Old Zoo site in Griffith Park. Consequently, the company’s productions have periodically found ways to incorporate rock and pop music in canny ways.
For a previous production of “Richard III,” Melville composed several songs that spanned “quasi-heavy metal music and Latin cantatas — it was like my prog-rock album.”
Melding the ’50s music into “Two Gentlemen” has allowed him the opportunity to really dig into that repertoire, and he said he’s found it “a challenge that I’ve really enjoyed.”
In fact, it was “Two Gentlemen of Verona” that the company chose for its first production, in 2004, when it was putting on plays in Barnsdall Park. As Melville quipped for the audience at the Aug. 20 performance, “We played to an audience of 15 people and a dog, and by the end, the dog left.”
That may be a slight exaggeration, he said, “but it’s not far from the truth. It was a very small audience.”
That first season’s total attendance was about 900. Nowadays the company draws around 45,000 playgoers to what typically consists of two free outdoor productions each summer. It’s not unusual on a given weekend night to find 1,500 or 2,000 people spread out on the lawn in front of the semi-permanent stage that’s erected at the beginning of each summer. The company also puts on indoor plays during the fall and winter at a space it has in Atwater Village.
“Two Gentlemen of Verona” runs through Sept. 3, and at the Friday, Aug. 25 performance, Melville will discuss the production in a pre-play session beginning at 6 p.m.
“So many of the ’50s songs were really crafted for teenagers about teenagers because that was the market they were writing to,” he said. “I thought it would be great if there was some way we could harness that.” Because “Two Gentlemen” is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, “it has a youthful exuberance, and a lack of cynicism, and that’s something that’s very present in that music,” Melville said. “It’s very innocent, and unsubtle in a way, which is refreshing.”
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