Audra McDonald and Anne Hathaway
in Twelfth Night
(© Joan Marcus)
Audra McDonald and Anne Hathaway
in Twelfth Night
(© Joan Marcus)
"If music be the food of love, play on." By the time this famous first line is spoken in the Public Theater's Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Twelfth Night, now at the Delacorte Theater, the fraught relationship between Olivia (Audra McDonald), mourning for her dead brother, and Duke Orsino (Raul Esparza), who is set to woo her, has already been firmly established. He's hired musicians to serenade her at her brother's grave, an ill-considered move that doesn't win him any favors. It's a sharply delineated, wordless scene that makes for a terrific start to director Daniel Sullivan's delightful production of Shakespeare's romantic comedy.

The play kicks into high gear with the arrival of the shipwrecked Viola (Anne Hathaway) who mistakenly believes that brother Sebastian (Stark Sands) has drowned. To make her way in the world, she disguises herself as a boy named Cesario, and under the Duke's employ attempts to win Olivia's affections for Orsino but instead becomes the object of Olivia's lustful attentions. Add in another would-be suitor, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Hamish Linklater), a plot against Olivia's steward Malvolio (Michael Cumpsty), and Sebastian's inevitable arrival and you have the ingredients for a hilarious romp that's only enhanced by scenic designer John Lee Beatty's set of rolling green hills and trees that fit right in with the natural Central Park landscape.

Hathaway makes for a very cute and passably convincing boy, and costume designer Jane Greenwood and wig designer Tom Watson have done a good job in emphasizing her resemblance to Sands' earnest and appealing Sebastian. The actress fares best in her more comic scenes, particularly with McDonald's love-struck Olivia. For her part, the four-time Tony winner is an absolute delight to watch, with facial expressions and body language that seem like they should be over-the-top, but are somehow still grounded in McDonald's grin-inducing portrayal.

Esparza gives a more low-key yet still very funny performance, while Linklater's Andrew Aguecheek is pure comic genius -- particularly when he faints dead away when challenged to a fight. Cumpsty endows Malvolio with an appropriate smugness, and the wonderful cast also includes a sprightly Julie White as Olivia's maid, Maria; a larger than life Jay O. Sanders as Sir Toby Belch; and a marvelous David Pittu as the clown, Feste.

Pittu gets to sing the majority of the show's many songs, beautifully composed by musical ensemble HEM and featuring a folk sound with Celtic influences. Since the cast includes some of Broadway's greatest musical theater stars, it's also a joy to hear Pittu duetting with Esparza in one gorgeous number, and McDonald joining in on the final song along with the rest of the cast. Here, music really is the food of love, and this production should leave audiences fully sated.