Click photo to enlarge
CALIFORNIA SHAKESPEARE THEATER The cast of Cal Shakes' new production, "The Verona Project."

Early Saturday evening, before the sun set and the glacial breeze crept in on icy cat feet, the stage at the California Shakespeare Theater seemed set for summer.

The place had a surfside concert feel to it -- with instruments from French horns to guitars scattered about the stage, it felt like a Jimmy Buffett concert would pour in beneath the canopy band shell, painted with Monte Pythonesque drawings of life and death, and a tree, which we eventually learn is where moms go when they die.

Then the band saunters on stage for the world-premiere of "The Verona Project," the second production of this year's California Shakespeare Theater's summer season. They are more than a band, though; they are actors and musicians who will spend the evening presenting a sly and irresistible retelling of Shakespeare's "The Two Gentlemen of Verona."

The piece is part play, part concert, with a wildly varied array of musical styles (from folk to pop and rock to more traditional show tune) and a goofy sort of magical realism that has characters living and dead chatting with each other, time being nothing more than reverse or fast-forward on a recorder and relationships as fluid as Lake Tahoe.

Proteus (Dan Clegg) and Valentine (Nate Trinrud) are lifelong chums from the small town of True; they are 13 when we meet them, along with another 13-year-old, Julia (Arwen Anderson), the only girl in town. She immediately becomes the object of Proteus' affection, and their relationship grows after Valentine leaves tiny True to find his way in the big city. The young couple vows their love and become engaged to become engaged.

But Pro's father tells his son he needs to sew some wild oats, so he leaves both Julia and True to track down Valentine and have some fun in the city. There he finds Valentine employed by a prose-and-poetry-on-demand shop and is shocked when he discovers his old pal romantically linked with Sylvio (Philip Mills), son of the Duke (Adam Yazbeck), and fiancee of Thuria (Elena Wright).

Pro forgets all about Julia and decides he wants what Val wants, and finds himself on one end of a world-class smooch with Sylvio. This is even more complicated when poor Julia finds herself not only in the city but somehow mistaken for Sylvio's bodyguard.

So a plenty tangled web is woven from the elements of the story and by the fact musicians move flawlessly between playing instruments and singing and taking part in the unfolding action, which creates a fascinating and funny visual picture, particularly since the performers are dressed in a variety of styles that, in some cases, appears to be the result of a thrift-store free-for-all (in a very nice way).

The script blends Shakespeare's words with dialogue from playwright Amanda Dehnert, showing a nimble wit and a winning combination of verbal styles. However, it all becomes just too rich -- the show is in need of considerable trimming. Chopping the text would make the play sharper and give it a heightened focus.

As it is, it feels like you are hearing ideas sometimes two and three times, and you tend to find yourself ahead of the story and tapping your fingers on the chair in front of you while you wait for the story to catch up. Subsequent productions should be shorter and more severely edited.

The play certainly has plenty to recommend it, but the story isn't broad or complicated enough to merit nearly three hours of stage time.

Even with that, though, "The Verona Project" is an engaging treat that features excellent musicianship and some fine acting, particularly by Anderson, Wright, Clegg and Trinrud.

the Verona project

World premiere written and directed by Amanda Dehnert; presented by California Shakespeare Theater
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays through July 31
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, off Highway 24, Orinda
Running time: 2 hour, 45 minutes (1 intermission)
Tickets: $35-$66; 510-548-9666, www.calshakes.org