Sunday, August 18, 2013

Shakespeare Sings, and It's (Mostly) Beautiful Music

Review:  Love’s Labour’s Lost
It's Shakespeare, but it's fun!  See?  His bowtie is untied and everything!
The Public Theatre’s annual Shakespeare in the Park program was started with a very simple mission: to provide free Shakespeare to the entirety of New York City, not just those able to afford the increasingly high price of theatre tickets.  Over the years this mission has expanded to include revivals of other classic playwrights and even the occasional musical, with multiple productions eventually transferring to healthy and critically acclaimed runs on Broadway.  This year the Public is using the program to launch an original musical for only the third time in its history, reuniting the creative team of the Tony-nominated Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson for a reimagining of the Bard’s early comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost.  And while the Public is clearly hoping that the show follows in the footsteps of Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, shows that transferred to Broadway and won Best Musical, this slickly produced new work is in need of at least one major round of rewrites before being ready for the big leagues.

For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s original play (and I must confess that I was not), the plot concerns the King of Navarre and three of his noble friends forswearing women and other earthly delights in order to devote themselves to study and personal betterment.  This vow is immediately tested by the arrival of the Princess of France and her entourage, who have come on behalf of her father to discuss some financial matters.  In an attempt to keep his vow the King insists the women camp outside his house rather than enter it, but the noblemen and women soon fall desperately in love.  There is also a subplot involving a Spanish lothario named Armado who is attempting to woo a tavern wench named Jaquenetta, and several other periphery characters that seem to be given a disproportionately large amount of stage time in comparison to their almost complete irrelevance to the plot.

Since I have neither seen nor read the original Shakespeare play, I cannot tell if this production’s narrative problems stem from the original text or from bookwriter/director Alex Timbers’ adaptation of it.  But the problems are definitely there, with multiple characters feeling underwritten and besieged by inconsistent motivations.  The show’s resolution also isn’t nearly as tidy as the almost painfully thorough denouements Shakespeare is known for, although the bizarre tonal shift at the play’s end does stem from the source material.  Timbers would have been better served by cutting several nonessential characters and subplots during his condensation of the show’s narrative, which would have allowed him more time to explore the principle characters and sharpen the thematic parallels between the love story of the nobles and the Armado/Jaquenetta subplot.

On the positive side, Timbers’ reimagining of the characters and setting is often ingenious.  He has reset the show in the present day and recast the noblemen and women as Ivy League college grads.  The men’s vow to devote themselves to further study calls to mind the decision many young people make to enter grad school rather than confront the harsh realities of adult life that their education and upbringing has done so little to prepare them for.  It is a crisis that will be especially familiar to the Millennials in the audience, and makes the play double as a funhouse commentary on the very real challenges facing today’s young adults. 

Timbers also does an excellent job of blending the contemporary jargon found in Michael Friedman’s lyrics with the Shakespearean dialogue used in the book scenes, and does a much better job of integrating Friedman’s rock-influenced score into the show’s structure than the pair managed in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, whose music often felt like an afterthought.  The score is also much more accomplished than the bare bones affair Friedman created for Bloody Bloody, although the composer still doesn’t have a firm grasp on how to use reprises and often struggles to find appropriate buttons for his sometimes truncated songs.

The slickness of Timbers’ and Friedman’s writing is matched by the outstanding production design.  John Lee Beaty’s unit set is one of the most visually interesting constructions the prolific designer has created for the Delacorte stage, and is perfectly complimented by Jennifer Moeller’s spectacular modern dress costumes.  Jeff Croiter beautifully lights all of the onstage shenanigans, with designs ranging from naturalistic mood lighting to rock concert razzle dazzle with a pit stop into the world of Eastern European performance art strobe lights.  (And while we’re on the subject, the deliciously non-sequitur performance art set piece is easily the highlight of the evening, and one of the most side-splittingly funny moments of the year.)

It is unfortunate that the performances don’t achieve the same uniform cohesion as the physical production.  Some of the actors do great work and some struggle unsuccessfully to make their characters pop, which only serves to highlight the show’s less successful moments.  In general, the women make a greater impression than the men, with Patti Murin’s indignant valley girl Princess emerging as the most consistently engaging performance of the evening.  Murin possesses excellent comic timing and a fine voice, while bringing a depth to the role that almost sells the heavy-handed ending the show is saddled with.  Rebecca Naomi Jones’ Jaquenetta has been gifted with the show’s best song, the smoldering rock ballad “Love’s a Gun,” and she knocks it out of the part.  But most importantly, the women display a genuine camaraderie and sense of teamwork that is sorely lacking among the men.

Colin Donnell comes across the better than the rest of his male costars as Berowne, the most conflicted of the four nobles, but Donnell’s role is more fully developed than most and even at his best he rarely rises above passable.  Daniel Breaker’s King has his moments, although his characterization also feels unintentionally separate from the rest of the noblemen.  Caesar Samayoa plays Armado as a dim puppy dog who is far too eager to please, and his cloyingly indulgent performance will repeatedly test the audience’s patience.  It is disappointing that such a high profile production ended up with such an uneven cast, and there are times where it’s obvious the dubious performances are holding the material back from the greatness it is pursuing.

Despite its many flaws, there is definitely potential in this material.  The writing shows flashes of brilliance and invention without disrespecting its source material, and the rock score is generally pleasing to the ear even if it isn’t particularly memorable.  Unlike too many new musicals, Lost never feels like it’s overstaying its welcome, and the intermissionless two hours is just about the perfect amount of time for it to tell it’s simple but engaging story.  It is often beautiful to look at, with the direction complimenting the design work perfectly.  If the cast doesn’t always reach the level one would hope for, there are certainly more good performances than bad, and several of the young leads are clearly on the cusp of the next level of stardom.  The show isn’t quite strong enough to merit a transfer, so anyone who is interested should hurry out and catch it before it disappears into the balmy summer night.

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