Although setting Shakespeare's perennially popular A Midsummer Night's Dream to song is not new, adapter and director Maggie Harrer and the University of North Texas Department of Dance and Theatre give it a different spin in A Jazz Dream. It transforms the whimsical tale into a jazz musical with a mixture of jazz classics and Shakespearean verse put to a jazz beat.
The production was a massive inter-disciplinary collaboration including the English, Journalism and RTVF departments. One of the collaborating elements was the One O'Clock Lab Band, UNT's Emmy-nominated jazz ensemble. Richard DeRosa, a professor of jazz studies at UNT who has worked as both a composer and arranger on Broadway, assisted his arrangement class of nine students in preparing the music for the production by taking traditional jazz songs chosen by Harrer and transforming them into modern jazz. Harrer narrowed down what started as three hundred titles to come up with the collection of primarily pre 1920's music that was updated for the play.
"I wanted stuff that we could turn into modern jazz that people might not know," Harrer says, talking about how she decided which songs made it into the show. "So we kind of have classics like 'Ain't Misbehavin',' 'Jeepers Creepers,' and then I found a piece, 'Only One Face in Dreamland,' which is perfect for Oberon and Titania."
A few of the pieces were from a similar adaption of A Midsummer Night's Dream called Swingin' the Dream, a 1939 production comprised of four jazz bands, a full orchestra and 150 actors, including Louis Armstrong and Butterfly McQueen.
Although the sultry soul of jazz and Shakespeare's story of a steamy night in the woods may not seem intuitively connected, Harrer said that Shakespeare's language and jazz music are actually quite similar.
"Iambic pentameter is five beats with the accent on the second beat, and jazz is the same thing. I kept thinking this is natural to put them together because the rhythms are so close."
Harrer's vision for A Jazz Dream came from her own experiences as a New Yorker. From occupy Wall Street protestors, who remind her of hippies, to both the MET and Central Park – her visions for Athens and the woods—Harrer attempted to ground all the aspects of her production in concrete realities.
"I was trying to find real life models for each of the characters that I felt would be honest and real," she says. "So this whole production would have a connection with the audience that they would recognize either overtly, intellectually or subliminally, internally.
Although Harrer firmly grounded A Jazz Dream in 21st century New York, she wanted it to remain connected to its roots.
"I'm very much a follower of the Grecian catharsis idea. At the same time [it is about] the Apollonian going into the wild woods and discovering Dionysian freedom, and then coming back and having some element of that love and passion remain," Harrer says, explaining the basic struggle between rules and chaos that underpins the production. "Too much Apollonian is a disaster. Too much Dionysian is a disaster—it creates chaos, but if you have elements of both, the Apollonian becomes more gentle and caring and the Dionysian becomes less chaotic."
The cast of actors and dancers energetically attack their parts, and strengthen their roles by telling bits of character and story through music and dance. One notable example is Puck (RaShard Turley) who indulges in witty, musical exposition more than once during the show.
Although there are many different ways for Bottom to merrily buffoon about the stage, Devin Miller hilariously portrays the unbearable weaver, overacting with simple honesty while human and heehawing and lurching about as a donkey.
Austin Struckmeyer's Oberon stalks around the stage like a trickstery Bagheera producing magic flowers out of thin air before unleashing their properties upon unsuspecting humans and fairies alike. He retains all of the playfulness of the fairy lord without playing up his menacing side, making for a very tender reunion between him and Titania (Kara Leimer).
Alongside some fresh performances by the cast, the One O'Clock Lab Band and jazz choir are exquisite, performing the new/old musical numbers and interludes with gusto.
Maggie Harrer and the students and staff at UNT have developed a solid musical, but Harrer says this is not the end for A Jazz Dream. She wants to workshop it again before finally bringing it to New York. She admits that some of the arrangements and other aspects need some reworking, but regardless, the show at UNT is an excellent first workshop with great promise for what to expect from this show in the future.