Love and the fools it makes of us sets the background for The Public Theater’s world premiere of a new musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the second show of The Public’s 2013 free Shakespeare in the Park season at the Delacorte. The 90-minute musical opened yesterday.
The team that created Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Alex Timbers (director and book adaptation) and Michael Friedman (songs) takes one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays and remakes it into a story about the rekindling of relationships at a liberal arts college’s reunion, done Vaudevillian style. Besides adding some cleverly fashioned tunes, the team trims down some of Shakespeare’s dialogue while beefing up the women’s roles, creating more nuanced characters. Some of this works well: Jaquenetta, for instance, played by the wonderful Rebecca Naomi Jones (Murder Ballad and American Idiot) appears world-weary and wistful in the knockout ballad, “Love’s a Gun.”
The main story tells of a three-year chastity pledge a group of young men make while pursing intellectual insight. As soon as the King of Navarre (Daniel Breaker) and his three friends – Berowne (Colin Donnell), Longaville (Bryce Pinkham) and Dumaine (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) grudgingly make their promises, like a madcap bachelorette party, four girls arrive to tempt them: Princess (Patti Murin) and best buds Rosaline (Maria Thayer), Maria (Kimiko Glenn), Katharine (Audrey Lynn Weston).
The addition of music both dilutes Shakespeare’s verse and makes it more accessible. Many of the lyrics appropriate the original prose, and all the songs intimate a wink-wink sense that the audience is in on a joke; as when the boys sing “Young Men” with such foreshadowing lyrics as, “Young men are supposed to be callow and cavalier about things that later they will have to think are important.” The best line of the night references the Public’s free summer theater, itself, with one character musing: “Rich people. They pay for better seats in plays that should be free.”
Love’s Labour’s Lost, both heartfelt and zany, appropriates many musical styles, from Madrigals to doo-whop, and pays homage to popular Broadway shows such as A Chorus Line (with a terrific sneaker tap worthy of Savion Glover) and Grease (in a Shakespearean teen angel number). But the impact of the play’s ending is diminished in exchange for hilarity and over-the-top parlor tricks as an entire marching band plays its way Music Man style on stage (a huge budget expense for a little laugh) and a slinky cat dances amidst the crowd in a random Andrew Lloyd Webber homage.
Sometimes it seems that more surgical cutting might benefit the musical. After all, Love’s Labour’s Lost, like much of Shakespeare’s works, remains a carnival of activity. Besides the ins and outs of five potential relationships, the play balances multiple themes—the flirtation between the frivolity of youth and the responsibility of adulthood, the role knowledge contains in having a well-lived life, the rich versus the poor—and several subplots. Simply some things don’t fit after all the musical numbers are added, such as the periodic appearance of pedantic professors and a bumbling local cop. The sideshow of Holofernes (Rachel Dratch) and Nathaniel (Jeff Hiller) may offer a reason to have the concluding pageant that wraps up the show yet both performers seem so dreadfully underutilized that their removal from the action might benefit the musical. Armado (a deliciously hapless and out-of-his-mind-with-love Caesar Samayoa) could have continued that subplot by himself.
The scenic design by John Lee Beatty exploits the outdoor setting and uses the looming Belvedere Castle as a background university building. Also from the Bloody team is choreographer Danny Mefford, who keeps things high-spirited, the boorish academic Hiller and the multi-tasking Justin Levin (Moth/music director/co-orchestrator).
Ultimately, the trim hour and 40 minute show, with no intermission, provides frolic and fun. Like a summer romance, though, it charms and beguiles without long-term engagement.
Runs through August 18.