Puck Rock

What fools these mortals be. And what fun the revival of Randy Tallman and Steven Mackenroth's rock comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Musical, now alternating through the summer with a more conventional Tempest at Shakespeare Dallas' outdoor East Dallas venue.

It's been some 30 years since this version of Midsummer, a big hit at Dallas Theater Center during the Paul Baker era of the 1970s, was granted a full production hereabouts. Nice to hear how well its lilting love songs and sometimes bouncy, often bluesy rock melodies hold up; they're well-matched to Shakespeare's words, to which the lyrics remain remarkably loyal.

Foolishness and folderol abound in Midsummer, one of the Bard's most elastic comedies. The heyday of rock musicals was the 1970s. So hey, it's kind of cool that Shakespeare Dallas shakes off its usual dusty velvets and starchy attitudes to set this woodland war between fairies and mortals smack back in the swingin', polyester-lovin', do-the-hustle years in which the musical adaptation was created (Tallman and Mackenroth were members of DTC's resident acting company then).

For Boomers who came of age in the Watergate era, this Midsummer serves as a fun flashback to the tight-skinned, slim-hipped days of our youth. Younger theatergoers can enjoy it simply as Shakespeare filtered through That '70s Show and Austin Powers.

However you look at it, the nostalgia angle works. Director René Moreno and designers Randel Wright and Jacob A. Climer soak this production so heavily in '70s musk, Jovan should be an underwriter. Moreno's worked in references to period ephemera such as Debby Boone, Atari games, Star Wars and the Carpenters. Wright's set banks the double-decker stage in Calder-esque mobiles asking the decade's favorite question, "What's your sign?" Climer's costumes present a groan-inducing grab bag of Charlie's Angels crop-tops and hot pants, Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses, "Full Cleveland" leisure suits, platform shoes and frizzy hair.

The fairy girls, a quintet of go-go tarts in white knee-high boots and scandalously short pink minis, giggle and squeal like Dean Martin's Golddiggers. The Rude Mechanicals, the play's low-brow comic-relief characters, are half Village People, half Sha Na Na (with a rare visual reference to one nearly forgotten real-life '70s fairy, Monty Rock III).

You just know somebody's going to strike Travolta's famous point-to-heaven pose. And sure enough, when Fairy King Oberon (Marco Rodriguez) dispatches his henchman Puck (John Forkner) to throw a spell over the play's pair of lovers, everyone comes down with a raging case of Saturday night fever.

All of this works because the play's timelessness lies in its magical mystery tour into the intersection of the real and imagined. It's about how love changes perceptions, sometimes in an instant, and how, when you're truly happy, time changes shape.

Two mortal boys (Steven Walters, Beau Trujillo) fall for mortal girls (Delilah Buitrón, Lindsey Holloway), but the couples get mixed up by Puck's potions. Under the same spell, Oberon's lady, Titania (M. Denise Lee), awakes with a nasty hankering for one of the Rude Mechanicals, donkey-eared Bottom (Anthony L. Ramirez, looking like Nacho Libre's less dapper cousin).

The show is a silly, wispy romantic romp start to finish, served well by the thwacka-thwacka guitar licks of the now-vintage score. Musically, it's all a kick. The pace begins to lag unforgivably, however, in several long scenes that stick closest to Shakespeare's words (mainly the "Pyramus and Thisbe" play-within-a-play). We keep waiting for Titania and Oberon to bop back onstage to get things going again.

As the Fairy Queen, the always dynamic Lee belts her showstoppers, "Consequence" and "Come On, Baby," with arms outstretched like Diana Ross in Central Park, swaying under an Afro that billows big as a nimbus cloud. Marco Rodriguez, king of both fairies and comedy in this production, plays Oberon as a smarmy Tony Orlando greeting the dawn of the Age of Aquarius in sparkly boots and fuzzy facial hair. Both are hilarious and do the most of any of the large ensemble in projecting the comedy into the vast expanses of the Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre. (Everybody's miked, but sound problems persisted at the preview reviewed and on opening night.)

The rest of the cast has to eat Titania and Oberon's fairy dust. As Puck, Forkner is strong of abs but weak of throat, which is too bad. Puck's Act 2 number, "All Will Be Well," is one of Tallman and Mackenroth's strongest efforts.

The lighting by Linda Blase could use a boost too. It's a shame Lee and Rodriguez, center stage for the all-white wedding finale, are stuck standing in near-darkness.

But such technical quibbles are forgiven and forgotten easily. When all their revels now have ended, A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Musical leaves its audience more than a little bewitched on a warm summer's night. Under a starry sky, made giddy by stories of young lovers and fairy queens, we happy fools go wandering home, a little more relaxed in our saggy mortal skins.

Load up the tumbrels, the peasants are revolting again. Boy, are they ever. In the latest and last, or so they say, road company of Les Misrables to come to Dallas, the lower classes of France seem more miz than they ever have. And so are some of us in the audience. The production winding up its run at the Music Hall at Fair Park is underlit, oversung and so slowly paced that when the screechy chorus sings "One Day More" at the end of the first act, it feels like a threat to hold us hostage.

What a turgid show. Just for fun, I decided to play the naïf and skip the Playbill's two-page crib sheet explaining the ridiculously convoluted plot about ex-con Jean Valjean (Randal Keith) and his nemesis, Inspector Javert (Trent Blanton at the performance reviewed). Yeah, just try to follow along strictly through the sung-through score. Impossible. The adaptation of Victor Hugo's epic novel by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and James Fenton is a murky bouillabaisse of too many characters, too many abrupt changes of mood and so many jumps of time and place there are slide projections to help establish things, as if seeing the word "Montfermeil" splashed on the back wall is such a big help.

If you know nothing about ol' Lame Is, the show could be interpreted as a dreary, bloated opera about po' folks, whores, pirates (at least that's how they're dressed, puffy shirts and all), cops, nuns, judges and sickly children. Everyone's angry every second. Except when they're singing a jaunty drinking tune at the local pub. When they get liquored up, the peasantry march in place waving red flags and singing their brains out about being hungry and poor.

They desperately need some dancing cats or singing monkeys to lighten up the mood of this thing. But all we get are more fist-pumping peons in raggedy dresses the color of dried dung. There haven't been this many whey-faced chorus girls in ugly kerchiefs since Cell Block 9 did Fiddler on the Roof.

Visually, this Les Miz presents tableau after tableau of unrelenting gloom. John Napier's set is a black hole. David Hersey's lighting wouldn't illuminate the top shelf of the average Frigidaire. Tres, tres depressing.

Even if you like Les Misérables, with its loud singing and French-fried phrasing, the Music Hall's notoriously sketchy sound system turns every other word to mush. When, that is, the singers themselves aren't gargling them to shreds or murdering every syllable with machine gun vibratos.

Songs such as "Thénardier Waltz" and "A Heart Full of Love" are hardly the toe-tappers of other hit musicals. One number, however, does stick fast, bubbling up later against your will like a bad bite of paté. That would be "Master of the House," one of the jaunty drinking tunes.

"Master of the house/Keeper of the zoo/Ready to relieve 'em/Of a sou or two." Remember the episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza couldn't stop singing it? Over and over, "Master of the" Drove Jerry nuts.

Seinfeld, now that was a good show. In the time it takes to sit through Les Misérables, you could watch six episodes.