Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Love's Labour's Lost" - Fun and Musical Frivolity - Shakespeare Style

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Joan Marcus

One remarkable thing about a Shakespeare work is its seemingly endless elasticity which allows it to be stretched to fit almost any scenario under the sun. Such is the case with the Public Theater's musical adaptation of the Bard's comedy Love's Labour's Lost (songs by Michael Friedman, book adapted and directed by Alex Timbers) which just finished a run at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Combining collegiate hi-jinks, a John Hughes film and an underlying look at just what love really means; this sometimes sophomoric, sometimes touching and always hilarious story offers a brilliant retelling of the Shakespeare tale, with a wide variety of comedic elements and musical styles coming perfectly together.

Somewhere in the Berkshires, right next to a college campus, the King (Daniel Breaker) and his close friends Berowne (Colin Donnell), Longaville (Bryce Pinkham) and Dumaine (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), all members of the secret society of Navarre, have agreed to give up such pleasures as good food, drink and the company of women for a period of three years in order to devote themselves to serious study. This despite Berowne's protests that men of their age - mid-20s - are supposed to be enjoying all that life has to offer; not shutting themselves away with musty books. In any event, their pledge of study, austerity and celibacy is doomed from the start as a Princess (Patti Murin) from a nearby kingdom and her entourage consisting of Rosaline (Maria Thayer), Maria (Kimko Glenn), and Katherine (Audrey Lynn Weston) is about to arrive for a long-planned visit. Making matters perhaps more uncomfortable, it seems the King and Princess are previously acquainted, the two having had a brief fling during their college days. In fact, Berowne, Dumaine and Longaville, have each had their own liaisons with Rosaline, Maria and Katherine respectively during that not-so-long ago period. An attraction which, on some level is still there for all involved.

The basic theme of Love's Labour's Lost is essentially an exploration of the idea of love and how that state of being often means different things to different people. For while the men soon find themselves romantically drawn to the Princess and her ladies, and thinking in terms of flowery verse, rhyming couplets, and endless passion, the women are having none of it. The Princess having long since tiring of one-night stands and promises of endless bliss, wants instead a more solid and serious commitment; these feelings brilliantly expressed through some of the songs Murin sings in this regard. Yet at the same the Princess and her group are not quite ready to fully embrace adulthood, as evidenced by their partying outside the men's lodgings at points. It's this internal conflict of people caught between the seemingly carefree days of youth and responsibilities of maturity which provides the main trust of the story.

After a few awkward moments at the beginning, which includes Berowne singing a song for a sequence that really doesn't need to be musicalized, the production quickly takes off, presenting some wild overacting and scenery-chewing moments, all to completely hilarious results. Some of the highlights include a scene where the Spanish Duke Armado (Caesar Samayoa), proclaims his love for the serving girl Jaquenetta (Naomi Jones). There's also an extended sequence where Berowne, the King, Dumaine and Longaville separately proclaim how much they are in love with their various ladies fair and break into four distinct musical styles of expression, each sequence being completely different from the one that came before and all so not in keeping with the characters as so far presented as to make it all wonderfully over the top in execution.

Yet mixed in with all the comedy are many serious and telling moments, such as Boyet (Andrew Durand), servant to the Princess and her party acting as a sort of moderator for the flirtations between the sexes as the various couples do a verbal dance around what they really mean. There's also Berowne, the rogue of the group, who sings about men committing themselves to the abject beauty of true love; while at another point in the story the Princess pushes her idea of serious commitment, one divorced from any romantic trappings that may come with it. The truth of the matter falling somewhere in between as shown when Rosaline, who makes a perfect romantic foil for Berowne, sings about how it's better to take a chance at love and risk getting hurt rather than wait for something completely safe and solid to come along, especially if that offer is bereft of passion and pleasure.

Acting is excellent throughout. Particularly Murin as the Princess who looks like her character could have stepped right out of a '80s or '90s coming of age movie, the actress showing a no-nonsense attitude coupled with a youthful exuberance lurking just below the surface. Thayer is fine as the more cynical Rosaline, who matches wits with Donnell nicely and who is determined not to be just another in Berowne's string of conquests, but who still can't help finding herself being swept off her feet by his charms. Glenn and Weston are good as the other ladies in waiting who get in few good lines and are able to imbue their characters with enough of a personality to make them stand out on their own and not just blend into the story - a common problem in some productions of this play.

Donnell meanwhile is terrific as Berowne, a likeable rapscallion who knows full well there is a time and place for study and a time and place for fun, yet he's not above being as foolish as the rest of the men when it comes to matters of the heart. The character's strength being that he's not afraid to admit this fact. Breaker makes a good King, nicely officious but with a somewhat checkered past and when he does cut loose, he brings the house down in a shower of laughter and applause via his transformation from a royal ruler to a would-be lover. Samayoa is wonderfully outrageous as Armado. Pinkham and Near-Verbrugghe do good jobs as Longaville and Dumaine, while Durand is fine as Boyet, another often underused character in most versions of this work. Another bit of fresh air comes from Charlie Pollack, a perennially bored servant – and one usually in trouble with the law - who comes across as kind of a stoned David Spade. Jones is nicely appealing as Jaquenetta, one of several working class folk popping in and out of the story. She and a number of the other servants and workers getting together to offer a nicely pointed song called "Rich People".

The score is a lot of fun with the various styles and sequences presented including tap, Mexican, a tuba number and a marching band. Along with multiple songs of love, angst and responsibility. With tempos ranging from ballad to pop-rock.

Direction by Timbers is not always the cleanest, but it works in allowing the various characters to act in a completely unexpected manner at times, all of which only serve to make them and their situations all the more endearing. Also on hand are Rachel Dratch and Jeff Hiller, playing two aging professor types, providing several amusing and comedic moments. The set by John Lee Beatty works well, giving the entire production a proper summer getaway atmosphere and the costumes by Jennifer Moeller are excellent. Danny Mefford's choreography is also very good, with a highlight being a sort of angelic chorus line sequence.

A great breath of fresh air blew through the Delacorte Theater with this production of Love's Labour's Lost which adds a wonderful new twist to a Shakespeare classic. Here's hoping the show will move somewhere else, or at least be recorded for posterity.

Love's Labour's Lost
A New Musical Based on the Play by William Shakespeare
Songs by Michael Friedman
Book Adapted and Directed by Alex Timbers

Featuring: Daniel Breaker (King), Colin Donnell (Berowne), Bryce Pinkham (Longaville), Lucas Near -Verbrugghe (Dumaine), Patti Murin (Princess), Maria Thayer (Rosaline) Kimko Glenn (Maria), Audrey Lynn Weston (Katherine), Andrew Durand (Boyet), Caesar Samayoa (Armado), Justin Levine (Moth), Kevin Del Aguila (Dull), Charlie Pollock (Costard), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Jaquenetta), Rachel Dratch (Holofernes), Jeff Miller (Nathaniel), Michael R. Douglass, Bradley Gibson (Ensemble)

Musicians: Kevin Garcia (Drums), Freddy Hall (Guitar), Marika Hughes (Cello), Justin Levine (Conductor, Keyboard, Synthesizer), Gray Reinhard (Keyboard 2), Charlie Rosen (Bass)

Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Music Director: Justine Levine
Choreographer: Danny Mefford
Wig Design: Leah J. Loukas
Orchestrations: Michael Friedman and Justin Levine
Music Supervisor: Matt Stine
Music Contractor: Antoine Silverman
Dramaturg: Anne Davison
Production Stage Manager: Arthur Gaffin
Stage Manager: Jamie Greathouse
Dance Captain: Patti Murin

Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Closed August 18, 2013

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