Love’s Labour’s Lost will probably never rank in the Top 10 Shakespeare plays, yet the musical adaptation presented by the Public ‘s Shakepeare in the Park is a delightful night of theater.
Wikipedia says, “Love's Labour's Lost abounds in sophisticated wordplay, puns, and literary allusions and is filled with clever pastiches of contemporary poetic forms.” The production at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, running through next Sunday, August 18, has been fashioned by the creative team behind the critically acclaimed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and they’ve managed to turn the spirit of the original into something completely contemporary. Alex Timbers, responsible for the book adaptation (and direction) gives a 21st century sensibility to Shakespeare’s language, while Michael Friedman adds more than 20 songs that are a pastiche of pop culture.
Without going into a lot of detail, the main plot involves four young men – the king and three aristocrats – swearing off the company of women for three years to devote themselves to study, but the setting has been changed to the fifth reunion at a small liberal arts college in 2008. There are four young women – a princess and her ladies in waiting – who arrive for a meeting with the king and pose a bit of a challenge to the guys’ vow of chastity. It’s a ridiculous situation, but adding a nod and a wink to Shakespeare’s lines makes it totally entertaining. Plus, in typical Shakespeare fashion there are a bunch of minor characters providing even more comic relief.
At a fast-paced hour and a half without intermission, it’s like the best Saturday Night Live you ever saw. Though none are big stars, there’s not a single weak cast member, and a couple are truly outstanding. Colin Donnell, who plays Berowne, is loaded with charisma, and Patti Murin as the princess has an endearing smile that reminded me of Kristen Wiig. Actually, the most familiar name in the cast belongs to SNL alum Rachel Dratch, who plays a pedantic professor. They all deliver the original Shakespeare with fluency and great comic timing, they have strong voices, and in some cases they’re pretty fine dancers.
Friedman’s music provides the most fun, drawing on a wide range of genres. There are takeoffs of boy bands like En Sync and New Kids on the Block and echoes of classic girl groups. There’s a neo-Elizabethan number and a showstopper that pays homage to “One” from A Chorus Line. There’s a coup de theatre involving a brass band that recalls the finale of the 2000 revival of The Music Man. There’s even a refugee from Cats who somehow wanders onstage .
You get the sense that Timbers and Friedman kept saying, “Why don’t we try this?” Near the end of the evening, the king wonders if they should have a sense of shame, to which Berowne (I think) replies that they’re “shameproof.” The same could be said of the production, which is silly in that SNL/Pythonesque way, and yet ends on a bittersweet note, true to the original, when the princess learns of her father’s death. Leaving the Delacorte on a perfect summer evening, I was exhilarated. Should it transfer to Broadway (as I’m sure it’s positioned to do), Love’s Labour’s Lost will leave theatergoers no less satisfied.