Review: As You Like It Finds Healing Properties in Art and Arden
When Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery's musical take on Shakespeare's crowd-pleasing romantic comedy As You Like It debuted at the Delacorte Theater for its abbreviated run in 2017, it felt like a city-wide primal scream. We were still getting accustomed to the dystopian hues of post-2016 America — and Taub and Woolery built a utopia in Arden where love, joy, and expression were still possible. In the five years since, the dystopia remains — and with some new and unexpected tints — but Arden is still as idyllic as ever.
While the original mounting was merely a moment in the woods — a weekend-long revel featuring throngs of Public Works participants — this new settled As You Like It (directed by Woolery) has managed to harness that community energy for a monthlong sit-down in the Public's outdoor space. The return of Public Works is just one more exciting benchmark in New York City's post-Covid restoration, but what's even more energizing about this production is witnessing Taub back in her creative element. After seeing her historical musical Suffs continue to search for its sea legs in its Public Theater debut, and hearing some rocky rumblings out of the Chicago premiere of The Devil Wears Prada musical (for which she contributed lyrics to Elton John's melodies), As You Like It epitomizes all the things that remind us why she is such a special artist.
One moment, her music is pointed, clever, and insightful — the next, it's a soulful and transcendent prayer. It's a fitting balance for a play like As You Like It, which to some is a banal and clunky love story that ends in too many weddings (half of which are now same-sex thanks to a few script alterations); to others is one of Shakespeare's most insightful commentaries on gender and marriage. Rebecca Naomi Jones and Ato Blankson-Wood reprise their roles as Rosalind and Orlando — our central romantic pair who fall in love at first sight but learn what that love actually means after both are forced to seek refuge in the Forest of Arden (designer Myung Hee Cho unites the magic of nature and theater in her scenery).
Rosalind, who has been banished by Duke Frederick (Eric Pierre), flees with her best friend and Frederick's daughter Celia (Idania Quezada), and together they assume disguises — Celia playing the part of a poor woman named Aliena, and Rosalind taking on the persona of a young boy named Ganymede (the court jester Touchstone, played with boisterous Queer Eye energy by Christopher M. Ramirez, also joins them in the woods). Orlando, meanwhile, finds himself in Arden — a Shangri-La for Rosalind's exiled father Duke Senior (played by Darius de Haas with warmth and passionate vocals) and his supporters — to escape persecution by his older brother Oliver (Renrick Palmer).
Here, Orlando writes and decorates the trees with a collection of simpleton love poems for Rosalind, which Taub encapsulates in a '90s boy band number ("Will U Be My Bride") that is a hackneyed thrill for anyone with a fondness for the Backstreet Boys' Millennium album (an evident inspiration for costume designer Emilio Sosa in this scene). Orlando's love is trite and immature, and Rosalind, armed with male bravado and her mythical pseudonym, decides to school him in the ways of true, blemished affection. Taub distills these lessons into the song "When I'm Your Wife," which Jones delivers as Ganymede to Orlando with both outward conviction and worried self-reflection. It's a trenchant meditation on love and marriage, which Taub masterfully blends with humor and bittersweet hope.
These intimate moments are counterbalanced by Public Works' signature ensemble numbers, which can thrill with the sheer massiveness of their physical presence. With dozens of voices behind songs like "In Arden" and "Still I Will Love" — written like life-affirming incantations — Taub's perspective on art as community, reflection, and salvation becomes abundantly clear. It's only suitable that she gets to pass through scenes as Jaques, the omniscient artist figure in this iteration of the play. She sings the famous line "All the world's a stage," noting the false inventions of our everyday performances, the truths we can find through our artistic inventions, and the unending malleability of both. It's shifting ground wherever you turn, so you might as well spend your time behind the footlights loving your neighbor and soaking in the majesty of five-part male harmony.