When Shakespeare meets rock ’n’ roll, worlds collide and explode into a multitude of dramatic possibilities. A stage set can look like a cross between the Globe Theatre and the inside of a space ship. And the carnival-like setting of mythical Illyria can trade out for small-town USA.
Moving into its 31st season, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society is taking advantage of such possibilities with gusto. In two separate musical productions, it sets the works of William Shakespeare to rock music.
The first, “All Shook Up,” entwines the Bard with the King. Based on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” the 1950s-era story unfolds to songs made famous by Elvis Presley. Guest directing the work will be Claude Giroux, artistic director at Allenberry Playhouse in Pennsylvania.
Giroux says the musical brings seemingly disparate artistic personalities together adroitly. “Elvis had an incredible body of work in his career that really covered a lot of ground,” he says. “It’s interesting how tidily the songs come off in advancing the storyline.”
He adds that, unlike some such productions, it’s not “a concert show where it’s just an excuse to use the music.”
Giroux previously staged “All Shook Up” at Allenberry. Some of the original cast and the stage set will travel to Westwego for the production.
The second rock musical on the performing arts society’s roster, “Return to the Forbidden Planet,” is rooted both in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and in the 1956 sci-fi film “The Forbidden Planet,” which is loosely based on “The Tempest.” The Westwego Performing Arts Theatre will be decorated to look like a space ship, with ushers dressed in futuristic uniforms and audience members treated like passengers. The music will include, at appropriate places in the story, iconic songs by the likes of James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.
Claire Van Cott, assistant artistic director for the performing arts society, is directing this regional premier production. She describes the musical as “intelligent fluff” that is inventive in the way it brings the music into the sci-fi/Shakespearean context.
“With these kinds of features we’re trying to expose a new audience to the theatre,” Van Cott says. “We’re hoping to draw more people into the musical genre.”
Giroux also sees the appeal to audiences. He mentions the wild popularity of rock musicals like “Mamma Mia,” which is a platform for the music of Abba, and “We Will Rock You,” which features the songs of Queen. “There’s a genuine audience for the old-school musicals, but that’s not all they want,” Giroux says.
He doesn’t see the “rock musical” as a subgenre of the musical, but rather the natural evolution of the form. After all, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” one of the
progenitor rock musicals, is four decades old. “It’s a very American art form that embraces popular music, and it is gaining strength because our taste in music has evolved,” Giroux says.
Dennis Assaf, artistic director for Jefferson Performing Arts Society, believes the familiarity of the music in the two productions will attract audiences. “It helps you market your product,” he says. “Familiarity is the number one reason that people go to see shows.”
But Assaf says it was “purely by accident” that the performing arts society has two Shakespeare rock musicals slated early in the season. The potential of each production spoke for itself, he says.
“Preparing for a season is like going into a candy store, and I can pick any candy I want as long as I can figure out a way to pay for it,” he says.
Giroux predicts that musicals will continue to occupy significant space in that candy store – and evolve to suit the tastes of audiences. “I’m looking for another revolution,” he says.
Both “All Shook Up” and “Return to the Forbidden Planet” are choreographed by the performing arts society’s Lynne Lawrence. •
“All Shook Up,” Sept. 13-Oct. 5; “Return to the Forbidden Planet,” Oct. 31-Nov. 16; both at Westwego Performing Arts Theatre, 177 Sala Ave., Westwego, 504-371-3330,www.jpas.org.