Broadway & the Bard: An Evening of Shakespeare and Song

Len Cariou. Photos by Carol Rosegg.

Theatre Hall of Fame member and Tony Award winner Len Cariou is one of the treasures of North American theater. Especially noted for his title performance of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, he also received Tony nominations for the musicals A Little Night Music and Applause and has played lead roles in much of the Shakespeare canon. Oh, and he’s also amassed a notable repertoire of television and movie roles.

To honor the two great loves of his professional career, musical comedy and Shakespeare, Cariou has created Broadway & the Bard….. an entertaining 80 minute one-man show. The concept is clever, as is its execution, which feels more like a nightclub rather than a theater performance, with Cariou backed only by music director Mark Janas on the piano. Apart from this unique conceit, Broadway has showcased the Bard’s source material in at least ten musicals, most explicitly and successfully in Two Gentlemen of Verona (from the play of the same name), The Boys from Syracuse (from The Comedy of Errors), West Side Story (from Romeo and Juliet), and Kiss Me Kate (from Taming of the Shrew).

Throughout the performance, soliloquies from over a dozen Shakespeare plays are paired with songs or medleys from the American musical songbook, and usually the linkage is clear. Cariou often gives the relevant citations and peppers the proceedings with vignettes from his own decades of experience. Playing to an appreciative audience on a nostalgia trip, these personal asides charm. Even more stories from the Great White Way and beyond would be welcomed.

Virtually all of the pairings of Shakespeare and song are worth note. Among the stronger, the lament of the vulnerable king Richard II leads to “If I Ruled the World,” the pop hit that was written by Leslie Bricusse and Cyril Ornadel for the poorly received Pickwick. Another linkage that works well is Petruchio’s declamation from Taming of the Shrew, which appropriately precedes “How to Handle a Woman” from Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot.

Mark Janas, Len Cariou.

Perhaps the most surprising combination involves King Lear, whose wrath is boundless when he finds that daughters Goneril and Regan to whom he has granted his empire have no respect for him. The bouncy “Reviewing the Situation” (by Lionel Bart from Oliver) which follows represents a tone change of quite some magnitude. But perhaps the most fitting number comes at the close with “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate which is a play about players playing Taming of the Shrew and mirroring Shakespeare’s themes in their own lives. And the song itself refers humorously to a whole bevy of the Bard’s plays.

Despite the limited clock time for the performance, the intensity of the drama and the songs demand an effort of considerable stamina – especially for a 78 year old. Cariou sustains the fervor and often connects with the audience in this intimate setting by smiling or mugging. While his voice still carries the passion for his craft, it is somewhat chesty, lacking the pinging clarity expected on the big stage. But for an audience looking to reminisce and witness an artist with a storied résumé at close range, the opportunity is here.

Broadway & the Bard: An Evening of Shakespeare & Song by Len Cariou, Barry Kleinbort, and Mark Janas is produced by Aruba Productions and Starry Night Productions and plays at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1600 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, CA through June 24, 2018.