The Akron-area arts community is toiling toward the perfect pairing of Shakespeare and Mendelssohn with a huge collaborative production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream March 8, which promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all in a single performance at E.J. Thomas Hall.
Dancers are perfecting their sprightly steps, young singers are rehearsing their fairy vocals, Shakespearean actors are immersing themselves in the comedy’s poetry and the Akron Symphony Orchestra musicians are preparing the bewitching, ethereal music of an enchanted wood.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the first staged play for the Akron Symphony and its fourth fully staged production after the dance The Rite of Spring, the musical Titanic and the opera Porgy and Bess in previous years.
For this production, the orchestra, actors, Ballet Excel Ohio dancers and Summit Children’s Choir have been rehearsing separately and will join together for the first time early next week to put all the pieces of the puzzle together for the grand show.
“Mendelssohn is as artistically elevated as it gets,” said Akron Symphony Orchestra conductor Christopher Wilkins. “Mendelssohn and Shakespeare — it just doesn’t get any better than that.”
The performance will include the 72-piece Akron Symphony playing the full Mendelssohn score along with an abridged adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy by Murray Ross, a version that Wilkins conducted in Orlando last April.
In Akron, the music will continue to be the focal point. The orchestra will be front and center, performing onstage as the Shakespearean players at times wend their way through the orchestra, which will represent the forest at key moments.
“They’re playing in front, behind, and in the midst of, to some degree, the orchestra,” Wilkins said of the actors, who will access an upper-level platform behind the orchestra via ramps.
Mendelssohn, whose Opus 21 and 61 make up the score, composed the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture at the tender age of 17.
“It’s probably really, truthfully, the most remarkable example of child prodigy in all of musical history,” Wilkins said of Mendelssohn’s perfectly complex, sophisticated overture.
Nearly two decades later, Mendelssohn was commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia to create incidental music for the full Shakespearean comedy. In 1842, Mendelssohn wrote 12 additional numbers to match the style and inspiration of his earlier overture, including themes for the story’s duke, lovers, fairies, donkey and comical tradesmen.
“When Mendelssohn sat down to compose the music, he pretty much had the whole play memorized,” director Craig Joseph said.
For example, Mendelssohn’s music has a rhythmic, incantational, hypnotic feel as the fairies cast spells on various mortal characters. In this production, Mendelssohn’s music is not only paired with dance and singing, but it also underscores the play’s action and words. As a result, learning and adapting to orchestral sound cues are an important part of the actors’ jobs.
“How do I lean into the music and what Mendelssohn has composed to try to help me with interpretation?” Joseph said. “It forces you to think about the language and the musicality of it in a different way when you’re actually doing it with music.”
Joseph, who is directing his first Shakespearean play, is leading a cast of 18 featuring John Hedges as Theseus/Oberon, Elana Kepner as Hippolyta/Titania, William Liptak as Lysander, Alex Funk as Demetrius, Natalie Welch as Hermia, Kyra Kelley as Helena, Stuart Hoffman as Puck and Bob Russell as Bottom. The actors range from high school age to Equity artists.
“When it comes down to it, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play about people who are undone by love,” Joseph said.
Kelley, who plays the lovelorn Helena, said the prospect of performing a Shakespearean work to Mendelssohn’s music was alluring to her: “I think actors in general and artists find that we live in this world that’s really big and broad and Shakespeare just allows us to realize that. It’s the beauty of the language and the opportunity to feel all those epic things he [Shakespeare] wants you to feel — the love and the loss.”
The cast’s fairies include vocalists Karla Cummins as Moth and Anna White as Mustardseed. They will sing with the 25 Summit Children’s Choir members, also dressed as fairies, in a song to protect Titania, queen of the fairies, from the evils of the enchanted wood.
Heather Cooper, director of the children’s Concert Choir, said her students are excited about the performance: “It’s certainly a wonderful opportunity for us to be onstage at E.J. Thomas, where so many of our singers have attended performances. It’s an honor to be singing there.”
Akron’s production of the Shakespearean work will include full set and lighting design by Deborah Malcolm and costuming by Erin Seidl, who will use different color palettes for fairies, people of the court, lovers and tradesmen. Erich Yetter is the choreographer, with Michael Lawrence Akers also choreographing a comical dance for the show’s six tradesmen, or mechanicals.
The production, whose budget totals about $150,000, is supported by a $90,000 grant from the Knight Foundation.
“It would not be happening without the support of the Knight Foundation,” Wilkins said of the large artistic collaboration. “It’s a platform for getting the community together through these great artistic experiences.”
Yetter is working with 24 dancers from Ballet Excel Ohio, formerly the Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet, who will perform as fairies. He previously choreographed the full-length Midsummer Night’s Dream ballet to Mendelssohn’s incidental music at the Peoria Ballet in 2004.
In Akron, the winged, bejeweled young dancers will frolic, fly, giggle at the mortals and bless them in the scherzo and the finale. Yetter’s nimble, airy dance is inspired by the work of George Balanchine, who created the quintessential version of the dance in 1962.
“It’s just musical, going into the music and thinking of patterns and fairylike movement,” Yetter said. “It’s not hard because ballerinas are creatures of the air anyway: They fly.”
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.