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Twelfth Night Plays On Through the Wind and the Rain

Shaina Taub leads her joyous musical version of Shakespeare's comedy.

Shaina Taub (center) leads the Blue cast of Twelfth Night, directed by Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah, for Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

The biggest musical of the summer isn't on Broadway; it's in Central Park. I'm referring to the Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night, which sets Shakespeare to a brand-new score while simultaneously supersizing this romantic comedy. That's not just a comment on the 129 actors whose names appear under the title in the program (although that small army of thespians contributes to the kind of group scenes you won't see on any other stage in New York, at least until the Metropolitan Opera season begins). With music and lyrics by Shaina Taub, Twelfth Night is a musical with enormous heart and smarts to match its considerable spectacle.

Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, Twelfth Night features the talents of professional and nonprofessional actors from eight different community organizations and New York Deaf Theatre (all actors simultaneously sign and speak their lines). If you want to see theater that truly looks like New York City, look no further. And lest you think it is amateur hour at the Delacorte, know that this is one of the tightest productions I've seen from Shakespeare in the Park. That was especially evident as the rain began to pour on the performance I attended and the show resolutely went on.

Nikki M. James (center) plays Viola in Twelfth Night.
(© Joan Marcus)

In the beginning it was merely damp. The distant rumble of thunder and flashes of lightning over Belvedere Castle offered the ideal backdrop for a story that begins with a violent storm and shipwreck. Castaway Viola (Nikki M. James) washes up on the shores of Illyria, convinced that her twin brother (Troy Anthony) is drowned. She disguises herself as a man named Cesario in order to gain employment in the service of Orsino (Ato Blankson-Wood), a local Duke with his eye on the recently widowed Countess Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich). Olivia, however, is more interested in Cesario. Her Steward, Malvolio (Andrew Kober), becomes convinced that he has a shot with Olivia when her mischievous houseguests, Toby Belch (Shuler Hensley) and Andrew Aguecheek (Daniel Hall), write him a fraudulent love note. Throwing caution to the wind, he allows himself to dream of becoming Count Malvolio.

It was at this point in the story that a slight drizzle developed into actual rain. The indefatigable Kober sang on, leading a massive chorus line in the fantasy production number that Malvolio always deserved. The production picked up the pace from there, and so did the downpour. As the evening approached its conclusion and Vivian Jett sang down the heavens in the reprise of the radio-ready ballad "Is This Not Love?," both cast and audience were completely drenched. But no amount of rain could dampen our spirits after experiencing this thoroughly delightful and heartwarming musical.

Andrew Kober leads the cast in "Count Malvolio" in Twelfth Night.
(© Joan Marcus)

Taub (who also lends her ample charm to the role of Olivia's fool, Feste) has taken a story that usually runs up to three hours and condensed it into 90 minutes without sacrificing any major plot points. Her songs are not only catchy but dramatically efficient, slicing through exposition and serving up objectives with a dexterity few other contemporary musical-theater composers possess (this will undoubtedly prove useful in The Devil Wears Prada).

That doesn't mean this Twelfth Night is reductive. In a song titled "Viola's Soliloquy," she considers the appeal of Cesario and questions, "Was the old me only a costume too?" James sings every line with clarity and an emotional resonance, making us consider the little drag performances we all give in our daily lives. The production also makes us reexamine Shakespeare's play: Jonathan Jordan's moving portrayal of Antonio as a reformed bad boy in love with Sebastian is particularly revelatory.

Taub makes good use of the chorus of Illyrians (divided into two "red" and "blue" ensembles that rotate performances). They return throughout the play with a song titled "Word on the Street," which keeps us abreast of the latest gossip. The wildly expressive J.W. Guido (artistic director of New York Deaf Theatre) is especially captivating in these scenes.

Jonathan Jordan plays Antonio, and Daniel Hall plays Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night.
(© Joan Marcus)

While impressively orchestrating the stage traffic, Eustis and Kwei-Armah have martialed the resources of the Public Theater into a truly stunning production: Rachel Hauck's multilevel scenery offers a gorgeous setting for Lorin Latarro's feisty choreography. Andrea Hood costumes this massive cast with vibrancy and flair. John Torres's effective lighting held up even under monsoon conditions, while Jessica Paz gets the sound balance just right so that we exit the theater singing, having clearly heard all of the lyrics.

So really, don't let the weather dissuade you from seeing this awesome new musical, tailor-made for Shakespeare in the Park and the people who love it. The rain it raineth every day, but Twelfth Night playeth only until August 19.