SF Playhouse - "12th Night"
Feste (Sam Paley, center) and the people of Illyria open Twelfth Night | Credit: Jessica Palopoli

On Jan. 5, 2022, Christmas decorations can be taken down, but the day’s namesake, Twelfth Night, will continue to the end of the month at SF Playhouse.

It’s not Shakespeare’s great romantic comedy that’s on stage there, but rather a recent musical adaptation by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub, with Taub’s music and lyrics.

The musical’s Public Theater debut in Central Park in 2018 was extolled in a New York Times review as “blissful ... a place where people of all ages, races and genders live in harmony, with just enough gossip and misunderstanding to keep things interesting.

SF Playhouse - "12th Night"
Maria (Cathleen Riddley) bids Toby (Michael Gene Sullivan) goodnight after they have hatched a plot with Andrew (Caleb Haven Draper) | Credit: Jessica Palopoli

“Everybody here is a star, from the local aristocracy to the postman. And perhaps most miraculously, the sun always shines in this enchanted country, even when it’s raining hard enough to plaster your shirt to your back.”

In the safe, recently upholstered indoor venue of SF Playhouse, it’s directed by Susi Damilano, who told SF Classical Voice:

In our 19 seasons, we’ve never done Shakespeare, and I personally have never been in or directed anything Shakespeare. So when Bill [English — SF Playhouse co-founder and artistic director] told me he thought I’d be the perfect director for this piece, I flipped a little ... until I listened to the score.

It covers so many musical genres and is deep, soulful, and full of joy. I fell in love. Then, I read the book and this adaptation is about 1/3 of the original text with 2/3 being converted to song, or cut, so it is really focused on the parts of the story that mirror what our Empathy Gym is about.

To tackle it I knew I’d need help, so I hired the best dramaturg in the Bay Area, Philippa Kelly [Cal Shakes dramaturg] and her associates — two students from Laney college, which gave me expertise and wider perspective than I would have had alone. They, in addition to Nicole Helfer as choreographer and music director Dave Dobrusky, gave me an unbeatable team.”

Its performance history interrupted by the pandemic, this musical adaptation of Twelfth Night was named one of the best theatrical productions of 2018 by Time, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Washington Post.

SF Playhouse - "12th Night"
Disguised as a man in Illyria, Viola (Sophia Introna, right), enters the employ of Orsino (Sean Fenton) in Twelfth Night at San Francisco Playhouse. | Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The musical, featuring an original jazz-funk score by Shaina Taub, follows the basic premise of the classic romantic comedy about mistaken identity and self-discovery: On the twelfth day of Christmas, shipwrecked Viola washes up on the shores of Illyria, disguises herself as a man, is sent to court a countess, and falls hard for a Duke. “As she navigates the gender confusion in all her roles, she finds her true self and true love in the process.”

Lily Janiak has described the SF Playhouse staging for the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Thunder rumbles. Lightning flashes. A rope slithers on, cordoning the ensemble in the shape of a ship’s hull as a sail rises behind them. Wind squalls. Other actors become waves and seaweed. Two bodies, both all in white, float above the others. They’re reaching fruitlessly for each other’s hands.

“Wordlessly and gorgeously, San Francisco Playhouse’s Twelfth Night communicates the back story of twins Viola (Sophia Introna) and Sebastian (Bear Manescalchi), who are separated by a shipwreck. Then Shaina Taub’s music kicks in, a joyful, jazzy expansion of the show’s famous first line: ‘If music be the food of love, play on.’”

SF Playhouse - "12th Night"
Viola (Sophia Introna, center), disguised as a man named Cesario, falls in love with her new boss, Duke Orsino (Sean Fenton, right), but Orsino is in love with Olivia (Loreigna Sinclair, left), who has in turn fallen in love with Cesario | Credit: Jessica Palopoli

“What I discovered working on the piece,” says stage director Damilano, “is why so many people love Shakespeare. He asks us to feel really deep and broad emotions, and then he gives us details, often contained in a single interpretation of a word, to mine for meaning. It is a creative dream to have endless possibility for interpretation. I am convinced that, like me, anyone that sees this version of Twelfth Night, will become a Shakespeare fan and seek out more. I get it now.

“And wait until you see this cast, they are a dream come true in talent. There is no way you can leave the theater without a smile on your face and your heart exploded.”

Did you enjoy the article?

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest articles every Tuesday