(Union Chapel, Islington. Friday 13th June 2014 (first of two nights). Review by Andy Boeckstaens)
As with food and politics, fusion is often a dirty word in music: it tends to dilute the powerful elements that make it up. This large-scale presentation of Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It by Highbury Opera Theatre was highly ambitious, successfully blending theatre and choral music with jazz and opera. The 400-year-old texts were adapted and set to music by composer and conductor Scott Stroman. More than 100 men, women and children - professionals, semi-professionals and talented amateurs – came together under the direction of Stroman and director Bernie Moran. In the setting of Islington’s magnificent Union Chapel, it was an inspiring and delightful experience.
As You Like It concerns the story of Orlando and Rosalind. The young would-be lovers are blighted by family feuds and separated by circumstance. Disguised as a man, Rosalind engineers the attention of the love-sick Orlando, resulting eventually in their marriage.
The play contains more songs than any other by Shakespeare, yet several pieces in this production were drawn from other sources. The prologue, Crabbed Age and Youth, and Fear No More comes from The Passionate Pilgrim and Cymbeline. Superficially at odds with As You Like It’s themes of love, injustice and reconciliation, these songs were performed brilliantly by the choir Eclectic Voices, supplemented by members of the Islington Community Choir and the vocal ensemble Classical VYBeS. Alongside these ensembles, there was a children’s chorus which comprised of members of Highbury Young Singers and pupils from Ashmount Primary School.
O Mistress Mine, from Twelfth Night, was arranged as a samba, introducing Orlando, played by Robin Bailey (at its reprise, Pete Hurt took a solo on tenor sax). Rosalind, played by the fine actress and singer Grace Andrews, was presented alongside Donna Canale’s Celia with Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind. It Was a Lover and His Lass, a jaunty, swinging variant on Hit the Road Jack, featured violinist Sonia Slany with a hard-working, ever-present six-piece band anchored by cellist Nick Cooper, Tim Wells on bass and an unusually restrained Paul Clarvis on drums. Guitarist Stuart Hall had a good rapport with the wise fool Touchstone, played by the excellent singer Robert Gildon. The difficult music to the well-known All The World’s a Stage benefited from the powerful voice and stage presence of the kilted, camp Jaques, played by Jacques Verzier.
Stroman danced as he conducted the final numbers. At the end, the stage was packed with actors, singers and musicians, with the children at the front jubilantly waving ribbons as Orlando carried Rosalind away to married life. As You Like It may not come close to Shakespeare’s great tragedies in exploring the human condition, but this production by Stroman, Moran and their hard-working company provided uplifting entertainment with astonishing variety. It was an evening of sheer pleasure that will live in the memory for a long time.