Expect something different. That's what the creative team of All's Well is saying about the 11th annual American Stage in the Park musical version of a Shakespeare play.
It's different because the play isn't set in any particular place or time, unlike previous collaborations between director Paul Mullins and composer/lyricist Lee Ahlin.
"We wanted to get away from always doing it in an era," Mullins said. "There comes a time when you don't want to do it again in the '50s. So this time it's any time, out of time."
The previous four shows were all set in quite specific times and places: a seaside mansion in the 1930s (Much Ado About Nothing), the Wild West (The Merry Wives of Windsor), the 1950s in Hollywood (The Two Gentlemen of Verona) and Chicago in the Roaring '20s (As You Like It).
Originally, Mullins had planned to turn Love's Labor's Lost into a '60s-style musical along the lines of Hair, but when he found the play resistant to that treatment, he switched to one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," All's Well That Ends Well.
Though it's a comedy, All's Well is a dark tale that revolves around the unrequited love of a commoner, Helena, for a nobleman named Bertram, who flees his home when Helena wins his hand in marriage.
"I put it in the same boat as Measure for Measure," Mullins said. "It's a comedy because Helena and Bertram do end up together at the end, but are they happy?"
Neither character is especially likable. Bertram is a cad, and Helena is a manipulator.
"I think one of the reasons it's a problem play is because it's difficult for us to root for a certain character," Ahlin said. "Shakespeare draws the characters so richly that we can see not only what they're doing but why they're doing it. A lot of times they're not doing it for noble reasons. They're doing it for selfish reasons."
What does Helena see in Bertram? "Our Bertram is a devilishly handsome man, so that's one thing from the point of view of lust," Ahlin said. "He's also a person of status, a count. So we can sort of see what Helena sees in him from that point of view."
As for Helena, she gets what she wants through one of Shakespeare's typically preposterous plot turns, a "bed trick" in which she trades places with Diana, a virginal maiden whom Bertram seeks to seduce.
"What struck me at first was how cunning Helena was," Ahlin said.
Musically, not setting All's Well in a particular era presented a challenge to the composer, whose previous scores included loads of familiar-sounding tunes from rock, country, salsa and other pop genres.
"I've deliberately tried to obscure genre this time," Ahlin said. "One of my strengths is taking an era and being able to quote that era in terms of chord structure and melody and rhythm. So this has been especially difficult because I've tried not to do that."
Rhythm is an area where the All's Well score breaks new ground. "One of the first things we think about when we think about an era of music is the rhythm of that music," Ahlin said. "Trying to avoid a specific rhythm has led me toward a path of a lot of polyrhythms _ 5/4 time going into 3/4 time, 6/8 time going into 3/8 time."
There are 17 songs in the show, with Ahlin leading a four-piece band of bass, saxophone, piano, drums and synthesizer.
Mullins figures they cut the original by about half to transform All's Well That Ends Well into a musical and keep it to a manageable length. In some ways, the plot-driven play serves to promote a musical style that began to take hold in 1994's The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
"Instead of just being a play that was shortened with songs inserted, we began trying to incorporate the songs into the action of the play," Mullins said. "Last year, in As You Like It, we succeeded in a couple of places in singing a whole scene."
Ahlin, who started work on the music on the day after last Thanksgiving, thinks All's Well represents his best work to date because of its melding of plot and song.
"It's natural for the audience to sort of tune out the Shakespearean dialogue and wait for the music," he said. "This year the two are woven together more than in the past. In a lot of places we have constructed it so that we don't get or want applause. We're going to melt out of a song into a scene and then melt from a scene into a song."
All's Well has more demanding singing than earlier shows, and the cast includes quite a few new faces, along with returnees such as Jeff Norton, Kimberly Kay (formerly Kimberly Schultheiss) and Elizabeth Murff.
Mullins thinks the audience will go along with a more sophisticated show, though he concedes it's not without risk to tinker with what has been a successful approach. People still compliment him most often on simple, comic numbers like Bad Girls With Great Hair, a women's motorcycle gang number from The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
"A lot of people have been with us every year, and I don't think they're interested in seeing the same thing over and over," he said. "I know I'm not interested in just doing what we've done in the past. Basically, I'm asked to come here every year to tell people a story. Now, I want to change my story a little."
An adaptation of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well with music and lyrics by Lee Ahlin and directed by Paul Mullins for American Stage in the Park. Opens Saturday at 8 p.m. and continues Wednesday through Sunday evenings through May 19 at Demens Landing, First Avenue at Bayshore Boulevard SE. Tickets are $7, $14 and $18. For information and reservations call 822-8814.