Guest contributor Lindsay B. Davis falls in love with the latest Public Theater production in Central Park.
It is rare to go to the theater and experience having your brain stimulated and heart melted, but that is exactly what happened to me while watching The Public Theater’s Love’s Labour’s Lost at The Delacorte Theater. This musical mash up of the Bard’s romantic comedy with original pop-rock songs, contemporary dialogue, movie one-liners and the occasional Sonnet excerpt was devised by Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’s dynamic duo, Michael Friedman (songs) and Alex Timbers (book adaptation/direction). Brought to life by an ensemble cast led by Daniel Breaker (Shrek) and Colin Donnell (Anything Goes), the collective charm, energy and talent do more than justice to Timber’s lively vision. I suspect this production, only the second musical adaptation of a Shakespeare play to emerge from The Public and premiere at the Delacorte since 1971, will rightly make the transfer to Broadway. Cue the celebratory big brass marching band!
The story begins with a challenge. Can King Ferdinand of Navarre and his three friends keep their self-imposed oath to swear off women (not to mention pot and their Xboxes) for three years to focus on philosophy and learning? This adaptation places the aristocratic men in 2008 at their five-year elite, liberal arts college reunion. “Young men,” they sing in the show’s opening number of the same name, “Are supposed to have sex…sleep in on Sunday for brunch. Don’t make me be 30 already.” (Fear of 30 being one of the many liberties taken in this interpretation of the source material. In the 16th century when this play was written, 30 years was actually the average life span.)
But what you resist persists and when the Princess of France (the very sparkly and vocally adept Patti Murin, of Xanadu and Lysistrata) arrives with her entourage of snappy and attractive girlfriends, the boys have more than their fair share of temptation on their hands. Every character becomes consumed with love in one way or another – there is a tuxedo-jacketed barista who emerges from the Cantina (where a small band sits onstage surrounded by a stacked bar) to perform “I Love Cats” in an ode to “the other white meat” while Don Armado (Ceasar Samayoa) sings his passion song, “Jaquenetta,” and does for a cherry-red, boy-short bathing suit and cape what Madonna did for the cone bra. Samoyoa’s transition from an interpretative Sir Mix A Lot rap into Sonnet 29 (“Trouble deaf heart of my bootless cries, curse my fate…”) when the former was “just not clicking” is a show stealer.
Antics aside, potent themes emerge that speak to questions of how masculinity looks when the identity of a straight suitor is temporarily thwarted. Colin Donnell as Berowne exposes a deep vulnerability during both “Change of Heart” and “Are You a Man.” Bryce Pinkham’s rendition of the soliloquy “Longaville’s Sonnet” morphs into an unabashed homage to A Chorus Line— complete with a silver, sparkly tank and skivvies and a chorus of hoofers. It is pure joy and a very smart, funny and honest display of the many sides of masculinity.
The female characters, however, feel somewhat underserved by the material. “It’s Not a Good Idea” is, in fact, not a good idea—written with an odd rhythm and in a key that doesn’t serve these very talented songstresses. The women are cast in what could be considered a subversive take on the world of Walt Disney: a blonde princess (Murin), fiery red head (Maria Thayer), a droll yet quirky brunette (Audrey Lynn Weston, who interjects iambic pentameter with “Wow” and “God” to wonderful effect), a chirpy Asian (Kimiko Glenn) and a sultry black woman (the gorgeous Rebecca Naomi Jones of American Idiot). While probably intentional, I wasn’t quite sure of the message. Whether subversive or not, these characters still felt a little hung out to try by their simplified choreography and bits… damsels overshadowed by the entertainment from the dudes. Saturday Night Live‘s Rachel Dratch’s appearance as the scholar Holfernes is satisfying but too brief.
Underneath the fun and games, this loose adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost is ultimately about “the need to express, to communicate” (to quote another memorable rock musical, Rent) whether through verse, poetry, prose, music, dancing or a quick splash in the pool. It is about overlooking the worlds that divide us (including class and race) in favor of a common language, one that encourages you to love and not take life so seriously. So, if you can handle your Shakespeare with a side of East German performance art, a musical tribute to the 90s group Mr. Big, a few chords from Kenny Login’s “Danger Zone” and countless other surprises on a charming little set (designed by John Lee Beattty) in the middle of the city’s perfect pleasure, Central Park, skip don’t walk to Shakespeare in the Park for “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Delacorte Theater, Central Park
Through August 18.
Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City.