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Review: With ‘Broadway and the Bard,’ Len Cariou helps us hear the music in Shakespeare

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Len Cariou performs “Broadway and the Bard” with pianist Mark Janas.
(Aruba Productions)

Shakespeare specialist, musical theater star, minor Broadway deity. These are just a few of the attributes we might ascribe to Len Cariou.

These days, the 78-year-old, Canada-born actor is also quite visible on television, playing Tom Selleck’s retired police chief father in all eight seasons of the CBS drama “Blue Bloods.” But for many of us, he’s in constant rotation in our cast-album playlists, singing through our ear buds as ill-starred lover Fredrik Egerman in “A Little Night Music” and the murderously vengeful barber whose name emblazons “Sweeney Todd” — two towering Stephen Sondheim musicals from the 1970s.

The complexity of every performance he gives — in theater, movies or film — is rooted in his facility with Shakespeare, as becomes clear in a passion project called “Broadway and the Bard,” which he’s performing through Sunday at the 74-seat Zephyr Theatre in West Hollywood. It’s a hybrid of Shakespeare and theater songs that he performed off-Broadway in 2016 and has been on the road with this month.

He begins, appropriately enough, with Orsino’s “If music be the food of love, play on” speech from “Twelfth Night” — a giddy if somewhat moody take on romance — which flows into the youthful elation of the Stephen Sondheim song “Love, I Hear” from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and the dizzy waltz of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Falling in Love With Love” from “The Boys From Syracuse.”

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One of Cariou’s chief charms is a deep, slightly raspy voice that’s like the low rumble of thunder at midnight.

Back in the day, his singing could condense into lightning-charged storms of emotion or breeze along like a spring romance. Such suppleness eludes him now — when he pushes into the extremes of his register, he misses pitches and warps his tone. But velvety richness remains in his midrange, and he skillfully slips into speak-singing when passages turn tricky. In the speeches, he is glorious.

Perfectly in sync with him throughout the 70-minute show is pianist Mark Janas, who underscores speeches as well as songs with sounds that move from glittering to jazzy to martial. Cariou created the show with Janas and their director, Barry Kleinbort, and the closeness of their collaboration is evident in the way that the show effortlessly unfolds on a stage simply outfitted with an alabaster bust of Shakespeare, a traveling trunk and a few coils of rope (set design by Josh Iacovelli and mood-enhancing lighting by Matt Berman).

Neatly charting life’s course in 13 Shakespearean passages and nearly twice as many songs, the show acknowledges hard times as well as happy ones, offering some playful juxtapositions along the way, as when Henry V’s battle-stirring “Once more unto the breach” shifts abruptly into the jaunty hedonism of “what is it that we’re living for” in the title song to “Applause.”

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By late in the show, King Lear is raging at his retirement-age folly and “As You Like It’s” Jaques is chronicling life’s swift passage (“All the world’s a stage”) — squalls that settle into quiet acceptance in Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song” from “Knickerbocker Holiday.”

For a few particularly magical minutes, Shakespeare and music fully fuse in “Fear No More” — words from “Cymbeline,” music by Sondheim (for “The Frogs”) — which Cariou delivers as a lullaby to ease life’s cares.

By this point, he has long since taught us to hear the music in Shakespeare and the Shakespeare in music.

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♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Broadway and the Bard’

Where: Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday.

Tickets: $35

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Info: (323) 960-7784, www.plays411.com/bard

Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

daryl.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @darylhmiller


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