By JK Clarke . . .
At the end of the summer of 2017, the Public Theater chose to close out a high-voltage summer with a civic-minded celebration of community and culture with a musical interpretation of William Shakespeare’s beloved comic pastoral As You Like It. The story of a noblewoman fleeing into the forest to escape tyranny, it was a conscientious and fitting wrap to several months of tumultuous political upheaval brought on by nationalist violence (heralded by the tiki torches of Charlottesville), the likes of which the country hadn’t witnessed in more than half a century.
The Public had been immersed in the political chaos as a result of its first Shakespeare in the Park offering of the summer—a modern-day Julius Caesar which rendered the country’s populist, ersatz-authoritarian president in the titular role, resulting in a storm of protests from certain political factions and the mid-production storming of the Delacorte’s stage by conspiracy-inspired activists.
So, the Public’s Labor Day weekend As You Like It production (under the auspices of their Public Works program which blends professional and community theater) seemed almost necessary: an invitation to the community to come together and let differences fall aside in this play about reconciliation. The production was celebrated and beloved enough that its eventual return to Shakespeare in the Park for a full run was inevitable. After a couple years of pandemic-related delays, that return has finally taken place this summer.
Once again Laurie Woolery directs the musical she and Shaina Taub adapted together, with Taub’s music and lyrics leading the way. Having reviewed the 2017 production of As You Like It, I was delighted by the prospect of seeing it again, believing that with adequate preparation time (one got the impression then that the show had been assembled more quickly than usual, though to very little fault) it could only have improved. Surprisingly, though still a crowd-pleaser, it does not seem to have aged well, lacking both the emotional intensity of the original, as well as its charm.
Taub’s songs, initially sweet and inventive, have started to feel a bit dated and tired. Perhaps that’s because Taub, the Public’s darling for the past several years, is starting to turn out musicals (like this year’s Suffs and, reportedly, her already maligned collaboration with Elton John on the Broadway adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada) that feel repetitive, derivative and excessively twee. Woolery also mistakenly casts Taub as the cynical, existential Jacques, a counterbalance to the multiple “new love” storylines that keep popping up in the Forest of Arden. She comes across as almost too cynical and standoffish. In conflict with Jacques’ character, her voice is cartoonish and she is costumed in Emmett Kelly-esque hobo overalls that don’t seem to fit into costume designer Emilio Sosa’s otherwise exuberant repertoire. Add to that a puzzling and quite inappropriate spate of Jacques dialog that Taub has written in, shaming the denizens of the forest for hunting and eating meat (as if, in that era, they could have survived otherwise): “Do you realize that the deer we eat for dinner/are actually thinking feeling creatures/who lived here long before we came?” Ugh. Even those who might agree with her (in today’s world) see this righteous, anachronistic indignation as better suited for a poetry slam in Bushwick, not a Shakespeare play.
But many elements from the previous, relatively unchanged version still impress: Rebecca Naomi Jones as Rosalind is wonderful, her beautiful singing voice both heartfelt and touching; and Darius de Haas, whose Duke Senior is the most delightful, passionate personality you’d ever want to find leading a band of outcasts in the woods. His singing is so enchanting and charismatic that it’s no wonder the entire Public Works ensemble (made of community members trained by the Public for this occasion) seems overjoyed to burst into song alongside him.
While I’m not predisposed to appreciating Shakespeare plays turned into musicals—they’re masterpieces that should be presented as written, I believe—As You Like It’s pastoral spirit lends itself easily to the transformation, though very little of Shakespeare’s actual script remains here. (In fact, I think it’s rather misguided to call the play “As You Like It” at all; any other name would suffice.) I was terribly disappointed to see one of the Bard’s most famous and thought-provoking soliloquies, The Seven Ages of Man (which begins “All the world’s a stage . . .”), reduced to a thin and superficial diddy. Nonetheless, there were some very pleasing, well-performed songs (e.g. “In Arden”) that enraptured the audience. And the sendoff set piece, “Still I Will Love,” which brings every one of the dozens and dozens of Public Works actors (there are two shifts of this massive group, who alternate every other night) on stage together in celebration, ties everything so nicely together that any other shortcomings are long since forgotten as the audience trails out into Central Park.
Like in the summer of 2017 when this musical was first staged, our society has gone through yet another crisis over the past two years, and the Public Works’ As You Like It—faults aside—seems a perfect way to once again reunite us as a community.
As You Like It – Musical. Through July 17 at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater (enter from Central Park West at West 81st Street). www.publictheater.org
Photos: Joan Marcus