Review: Music and food make for a decadent dish at San Francisco Playhouse’s ‘Twelfth Night’

Viola (Sophia Introna) takes in a rare soft moment in the San Francisco Playhouse production of “Twelfth Night,” running through Jan. 15. (Cover photo) A cast of revelers who sing and dance constantly make up the bright world of Illyria. (Jessica Palopoli photos)

There is no doubt that music be the food of love. But how much food are we talking about?

Actually, a lot.

In the San Francisco Playhouse’s decadent production of “Twelfth Night,” a musical adaptation by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub, the savory feast of William Shakespeare’s comedy of heartbreak, deception, misguided love and narcissism delights throughout the show’s tight run time. This food we speak of is not just the delicious tunes that create ooh and aah moments, but the entire production is a smorgasbord feast for the senses, executed by a joyful and convivial cast.

Explaining the narrative of just about any Shakespeare play is tricky because of his multiple-plotting mastery, but this production, directed with unifying textures by Susi Damilano and choreographed mightily by Nicole Helfer is made wholly accessible for even the biggest of those who suffer from Shakespeare-phobia.

Mourning the loss of her brother is the new normal for Olivia (Loreigna Sinclair), who enters every room with a full-blown New Orleans funeral procession accompanying every step. It parallels the loss suffered by Viola (Sophia Introna), who finds herself shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria (created in a stunningly beautiful opening collection of tableaus) believing that her twin brother Sebastian (Bear Manescalchi) perished as a result.

The Illyria that Viola descends upon is a colorful, festive place, enhanced greatly by the vibrant palette that made its way onto Bill English and Heather Kenyon’s cheery scenic design, coupled nicely with Abra Berman’s wild costume plot. A band that showcases a charming section of horns jumps into the narrative with gusto early and often.

The conflicts and convolution of Shakespeare’s plot takes off with a delightful score of wonderful hits that tasks Helfer to create lots of first-rate movement.

Maria (Cathleen Ridley), Sir Toby (Michael Gene Sullivan) and Andrew Aguecheek share plans to seek revenge on Malvolio. (Jessica Palopoli photo)

Because the play is a quick hitter that wraps up in 90 consecutive minutes, the action is frenetic with skilled performers everywhere, quite a feat that keeps pace with the play’s narrative. Both Olivia and Viola deal with their own challenges of grief while navigating Shakespeare’s comic staple of mistaken identity. The Duke of Orsino (Sean Fenton), a lover of love finds Olivia irresistible, but she’s in no state to reciprocate those feelings. Well, except that she’s falling for the man delivering the letters, Cesario, who is actually Viola in disguise to serve Orsino.

Put another way – Viola loves Orsino, Orsino loves Olivia and Olivia loves Cesario, also known as Viola. Easy, right?

All of the convoluted chaos makes for a delightful narrative that ties up nicely for the citizenry, lots of marriages creating a satisfying denouement. Yet the one who is tortured in both hilarious and cruel ways, Olivia’s butler Malvolio (Atticus Shaindlin), is a comic actor’s dream role, one who brings forth a deadly combination of base and highbrow humor. His agitators, led by the fool Feste (Sam Paley), Maria (Cathleen Riddley) and Sir Toby (Michael Gene Sullivan) revel in their perverse achievement and Malvolio’s very yellow socks.   

The lovely score of Taub is joyous and eloquent, but also sharp and witty, tunes that are filled with an infectious warmth. The big ol’ boozin’ ditty “You’re the Worst,” and the frustrating discovery of male privilege in “Viola’s Soliloquy” spell out the music’s unpredictable and succulent range. “Is This Not Love,” a tune that advocates Feste’s power of insight, handled with care by Paley, has a jazzy bounce and a soulful quality that speaks to the soundtrack’s power for variance.

Malvolio (Atticus Shaindlin) follows a secret letter and dons bright yellow socks in his quest for love. (Jessica Palopoli photo)

What brings the production home sharply is the committed performances from the talented cast. Sinclair commits to two distinct emotions, Introna’s Viola expresses mightily the dread of being a woman in this male society, and Fenton is rich in voice, finding the humor within his own bout of melancholia.

The sharpest performance on the deck belongs to Shaindlin as Malvolio. His is a highly-skilled tightwire act that hit every target of hilarity he aimed for, a brilliant and physical comic marvel. His solo song “Greatness” centers one of the original play’s most famous lines, and he becomes a vessel for what the best Shakespeare comic characters do so well – absolutely steal the show.

The element of truth earned through oodles of deception makes “Twelfth Night” such an allegorical tale. While everyone spends inordinate amounts of time pretending to be something they’re not, the real joy is when their faults and imperfections are accepted, critical and supreme honesty is applied, leading to crucial discovery of organic happiness.

While the brilliance of the production is cemented firmly, and the crafted world remains awash in bright hues, brighter characters and the sharp sheen of a jazzy trombone, only one important thing to do remains:

Let that food of love play on, and eat, eat, eat.


San Francisco Playhouse presents “Twelfth Night”
An adaption of the play by William Shakespeare
Conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub
Music and lyrics by Shaina Taub
Directed by Susi Damilano
The Word: A bright and festive Illyria is the playground for this delightful romp of one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies
Running time: 90 minutes no intermission
Through Jan. 15
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Tickets range from $30 – $100
For tickets and info, call (415) 677-9596 or visit

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