Photo by Joan Marcus
By Reuven Glezer
Central Park has become a joyous, soul-filled fantasy land, courtesy of the production of Twelfth Night now running at the Delacorte Theater. Growing out of the 2016 Public Works production, the 90-minute musical has plenty of candy-coated tunes and stellar performances to make this production a force of nature amidst the trees and city noise of Central Park.
Your mother’s Twelfth Night this is not – the original comedy, which usually runs closer to three hours and is one of the most popular of the Shakespeare canon, has been trimmed and weeded of its repetition and excesses to become a lovely, well-crafted piece of musical theatre. At times the show feels somewhat overstuffed, but it would be demeaning to think of the show as lesser for it. Comprised of two rotating Red and Blue ensembles and a top-notch cast, the production is the brainchild of up-and-coming composer Shaina Taub (who also plays the fool Feste) and director Kwame Kwei-Armah. This first jewel in what will be many a crown for Taub and Kwei-Armah has begun to show its potential – Taub was recently announced as the lyricist for The Devil Wears Prada musical, with an Elton John score, while Kwei-Armah has recently become the new artistic director of the Young Vic in London.
If you wonder whether or not a musical Shakespeare can work, it’s been done to wondrous results before. The late Michael Friedman adapted one of Shakespeare’s weaker laugh-fests into the underrated Love’s Labour’s Lost for Shakespeare in the Park and thirty years ago, Two Gentlemen of Verona premiered at the Delacorte as a rock musical from John Guare, Mel Shapiro, and Galt MacDermot. Under the tight direction of Oskar Eustis and featuring energetic, boisterous choreography from Lorin Latarro, it becomes a smooth, tuneful vehicle for one of most overdone of Shakespeare’s works.
It certainly helps that Illyria has gone from 16th-century kingdom to a stellarly designed seaside town, where gossip flies like seagulls and music might really be the food of love. Rachel Hauck’s set falls somewhere between a carnivalesque vacation and a full embrace of the Delacorte’s stage. Light design from John Torres paints the stage in such vivid, poppy color patterns and Andrea Hood’s costumes are thankfully simple yet effective. Jessica Paz’s sound makes sure that we hear every one of the dozens of actors, big and small, in crisp, uninterrupted glory.
It makes one wish that the Public invested in longer runs for similar works they’ve done over the years. Shakespeare is well and good, but its risks on artists like Taub that really take the cake. Some highlights of this Broadway-worthy feast are the ridiculously talented ensemble, who come from communities all over the five boroughs; the use of American Sign Language to make this show as accessible as can be without taking away any artistry; and Andrew Kober’s showstopper “Count Malvolio”, the only song liable to make you reconsider your opinion on the color yellow. Twelfth Night will come back aplenty, but few of those will be as kind, fun, and worth seeing as this.
Catch these fools for love before they leave Illyria on August 19th.