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Merry Lives rocked it

All photos by Vaughn Kness / Mainstream

William Shakespeare’s works have been adapted for the stage and screen for countless ages and in numerous ways. However, when the comedy work “The Merry Wives of Windsor High” is turned into a rock musical and set in the halls of today’s high schools, where drama, intrigue, romance, deception, and revenge play out, people tend to take notice. Combine witty comedy with a live band and you have a new Shakespearian adaptation that rocks-literally.

The worldwide premier of “The Merry Lives of Windsor High, a Rock Musical,” directed by Stephanie Newman, UCC’s director of theater arts, and presented by special arrangement with mediaV, a LA-based media company, kicked off with a packed house on Friday night, May 8 at Centerstage Theater. From the brilliant minds of Emmy nominee writer Marcy Shaffer, LA theater director and collaborative writer Beth Lopes and score composer Matthew Roi Berger, this adaptation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor High” features live music by Hemlock Lane, a Eugene based band and wonderfully choreographed dance numbers by Newman.

The play had a long road to travel to get onstage here at UCC. In a Q and A following the opening night’s production, the show’s creators explained that journey. Shaffer was at first hesitant to even attempt an adaptation of the “Merry Wives,” due to the original Shakespearian play’s apparent ridiculousness. Nevertheless, when the script’s original director Lopes explained the play could be set in a high school with the characters as teenagers, the idea took on life. And a revitalization of theater began. Once the script, score and lyrics were written, the writers and producers attempted to get L.A. area community colleges to produce it. The attempt was unsuccessful. The script was then sent Newman’s way. She agreed to bring Shaffer, Lopes and Berger’s vision to life here at UCC. What a life it has!

Our story opens in modern day Windsor High School as the characters are preparing for that all important dance: the Valentine’s Masked Ball, or VMB. The votes are tallied and the king and queens picked. Yes—queens. Two of the three nominees are strangely thrust into the lime light, although both are very hesitant to accept.

Even more suspicious is the king. Ian Hutchins as the strangely charismatic, yet dastardly Falstaff wins the vote, later revealed to be rigged by his minions. His game? To seduce the already taken hearts of Megan Trent and Allie Rodgers, played by the delightfully funny duo of Rachel Fitzhugh and Catherine Pieske respectively.

Sweet Allie and outspoken Megan become aware of his scheme, and plan a bit of mischief to entangle Falstaff. Along the way, they enlist their friend, lovely and lovelorn Tess to help them, all the while hiding their plans from their boyfriends George and Ford, splendidly portrayed by Kevin Braton and Jeremy Wools.

In the meantime, Anne Page, freshman cheerleader and little sister of George, is sought after by three suitors as a date to the VMB. Oliver Walker is dragged into the bid for the fair girl’s hand by his somewhat well-meaning twin Olivia, who just wants her brother to be happy. Despite his obvious inclinations, he goes along with it, persuaded adamantly by George and the reluctant prodding of his best friend Patrick, who continuously quotes Star Wars antidotes as his escapes.

To complicate the love triangle, D.C., lead singer of the band, becomes convinced all of his songs are subliminally written about Anne. Megan, D.C’s best friend, encourages him to throw his bid into the race. And last but not least, Anne’s own secret boyfriend Fenton is determined to make her brother see that he is good enough for Anne.

Thus begins the crazy and merry three days before the VMB. Several times, waves of laughter could be heard as tongue in cheek comedic lines flowed from the performers. Watching Falstaff run around and off the stage in a woman’s boating uniform – complete with bra – __while trying to escape the mobs of angry or oblivious guys led by the jealous Ford and George, was a sight.

Ian Hutchins as the dashingly malicious Falstaff flashes a smile at the audience while Graciela Garica angrily looks on. Hutchins and Garica are just two of the characters involved in Merry Lives of Windsor High’s twisted love triangles.

Besides the plot being brilliantly written and acted, the marriage between the Hemlock Lane vibe and the catchy, sometimes soulful lyrics was genius. The only drawback to having a live band in a small venue was that some of the singers were overshadowed by the power of the score. Even with mics on, a few soloist simply could not be heard well.  This was somewhat disappointing when the songs were pivotal plot points. I would have particularly liked to hear in its entirety Ford’s song about his suspicions of Allie.

Other voices could be heard perfectly. Epiffany Gombart as Tess and Josh Carlton as D.C.’s duet “Broken” sent chills down my spine as it was so perfectly haunting. Falstaff and the rest of the cast’s “Just Desserts” paid homage to other Shakespeare plays, including “Midsummer’s Night Dream” and “Julius Caesar,” with twisted lyrics. I honestly hope the show will have a soundtrack available to purchase eventually.

Even though Newman’s theater group was working with outdated lighting controls and some iffy lighting, the sets and effects were nicely done. Although a word of caution is needed. They do use strobe lights at least twice during the production to introduce Ford’s alter ego Nigel. Anyone with photosensitivity should take care. I myself felt a bit ill after the first time, and had to shut my eyes and look away when they came on again. After looking over the promo poster, I could not find a mention of either the lights, or the fog machine, even though it is in the playbill received at the show. I would advise that such warnings also be placed on promo posters.

All in all, “The Merry Lives at Windsor High” is one rockin’ show and well worth the watch. I applaud the cast, crew and everyone involved for producing a stellar night at the theater. As of the production of this article, it will have left Centerstage. However, if it comes back, I encourage anyone who enjoys rock musicals and the wackiness of Shakespeare to attend.