Joe Papp must be smiling somewhere. The late founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival created his free productions in Central Park out of a conviction that theater is essential and ought to be enjoyed by everybody. The latest Shakespeare in the Park production from The Public Theater, a new musical adaption of Shakespeare's comedy Love's Labour's Lost courtesy of Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman (the team behind Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) more than upholds said tradition. This show is so clever, so entertaining, and so thoroughly charming it is incomprehensible that anyone could walk away not liking it. It has something for everyone.
The story takes place at a faux-rustic resort hotel during the five-year reunion for the class of 2008 at an elite northeastern university (played here by the real-life Belvedere Castle). The King of Navarre (Daniel Breaker) has gathered his three best friends, Dumaine (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), Longaville (Bryce Pinkham), and Berowne (Colin Donnell) to pledge an oath most severe: The four young men will use this opportunity to renounce the trivial earthly delights of their postgraduate lives, sequestering themselves in the "hunting lodge" for three whole years to read philosophy and watch TED Talks. Most important, they will not see any women during this time. This proves easier said than done when the Princess of France (Patti Murin) shows up with her three ladies in waiting: Rosaline (Maria Thayer), Maria (Kimiko Glenn), and Katherine (Audrey Lynn Weston). What a curiously even number...
Adding to the mayhem, the Spaniard Don Armado (Caesar Samayoa) is head over heels for the barmaid Jaquenetta (Rebecca Naomi Jones). As love sparks fly, it is up to bartender/Matthew-McConaughey-look-alike Costard (Charlie Pollock) to clandestinely deliver correspondence between the lovers. Can he do it without screwing up? Of course not, but therein lies the comedy.
Timbers and Friedman have freely adapted the play, keeping Shakespeare's original text in some places while adding their own distinctly modern commentary where it suits them. None of the spirit of the original play is lost in this synthesis. Indeed, this world of young Americans treading boldly (if begrudgingly) into adulthood meshes frighteningly well with Shakespeare's Navarre. It's a timeless tale of mistaken identity and midsummer hijinks and this cast executes it all flawlessly.
Murin plays the stuck-up queen bee to perfection, with vocally fried line readings in all the right places. Samayoa hams it up, expertly walking the line between the sincere and the ridiculous. The endlessly talented Justin Levine astounds, not only leading the band as musical director, but also playing the feline-obsessed Moth. Rachel Dratch (formerly of Saturday Night Live) and Jeff Hiller keep us in hysterics as the brandy-sipping Latin-masticating academics Holofernes and Nathaniel. This is an all-star cast.
Director Timbers gets plenty of use out of them: tap-dancing cupids, a golf cart, a full marching band, and about a thousand costume changes. Just when you think it can't, the showmanship gets bigger. This maximalist approach to theater is quite warranted in a space as large as the Delacorte. It really dazzles the crowd. John Lee Beatty's stunning set, complete with garden lamps, a working fountain, and a fully stocked bar utilizes the surrounding beauty of Central Park better than any I've seen.
Friedman has a talent for blunt yet perceptive lyrics that offer a depth of thought rare in musical theater. They are occasionally acerbic, as in the number "Rich People," in which the non-aristocratic characters vent their frustration with these Ivy League snobs around those whom the story revolves. Costard looks out over the center of the audience (where Public Theater donors just might be sitting) and sings, "And now they're taking stuff away from you and me/They pay for better seats at plays that should be free."
Friedman and Timbers lovingly mock everything in reach, from the original text ("fa la la, that's kind of racist," two Renaissance Faire minstrels sing in response to the word "Ethiope") to their producing theater and its glittery past. By the time the four young men are expressing their devotion to the ladies through the magic of Mr. Big's "To Be With You" it becomes clear that Love's Labour's Lost is unapologetically popular (and populist) entertainment...and that's how it should be.