Mandy Patinkin isn't the first actor one would think of to play the banished, revenge-seeking duke Prospero in The Tempest. Although he has tackled Shakespeare a few times, he has devoted most of his career to musicals (Evita, Sunday in the Park With George), concerts, and TV (Chicago Hope). The good news is that Patinkin proves to be a fine Prospero, commanding the stage with his booming voice. And director Brian Kulick, who surely deserves partial credit for Patinkin's assured performance, has mounted a lively, visually striking production.
Kulick grabs the audience's attention right off the bat, with the crash of thunder and the image of a ship caught in a storm. (Four stagehands raise and lower a platform bearing a ship model to simulate stormy seas when they lift the platform, it doubles as a cloudy sky.) After the wreck, Prospero and his daughter Miranda (Elizabeth Waterston) find themselves on a beach, represented by a square of sand.
Pausing only for the occasional song by Prospero's loyal spirit Ariel (Angel Desai), the production moves along at a brisk clip. Only the comic scenes featuring drunken butler Stefano (Steven Rattazzi), the jester Trinculo (Tony Torn), and the slave Caliban (Nyambi Nyambi) go on a bit too long.
Patinkin's role is certainly the most demanding, and he seems quite comfortable with the language. In the opening scene, he comes on too strong and resorts to frequent gesturing. Fortunately, he soon drops the habit. Overall Patinkin makes a forceful yet thoughtful Prospero. Near the play's end he even gets to sing during a musical interlude.
Stark Sands (who made an auspicious Broadway debut in Journey's End) is aptly earnest and lovestruck as Miranda's suitor Ferdinand. Sands and Waterston makes such an attractive couple that their marriage, which is beautifully presented, always feels inevitable. Another standout is Yusef Bulos as the sympathetic old counselor Gonzalo (a role he previously played at the McCarter Theater).
Jian Jung's endlessly inventive set accentuates the play's magical qualities. Brian Scott's lighting and Christian Frederickson's original music and design also contribute to the enchanted atmosphere.
Kulick, Classic Stage Company's artistic director, doesn't have a big budget. But he and his designers do a lot with a little, inspiring audience members to use their imagination. Employing low-tech wizardry to excellent effect, this beautifully realized Tempest casts a spell.