Shakespeare Himself Nodded Toward This ‘As You Like It’
If Shaina Taub’s adjustments can suggest a certain self-consciousness on the surface, they inform a genuine and exuberant inclusiveness that transcends virtue signaling.
As the sun set on Central Park last Thursday, a crowd gathered in near-perfect weather to enjoy, free of charge, a delicious cocktail: Shakespeare and Shaina Taub.
For those unfamiliar with the latter ingredient, Ms. Taub is a busy young songwriter and performer whose credits include the Broadway-bound musical adaptation of “The Devil Wears Prada” — she wrote lyrics to accompany Elton John’s music — and the Public Theater’s “SUFFS,” a hyper-ambitious account of the women’s suffrage movement that suffered for inviting too many comparisons to “Hamilton.” (Like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ms. Taub wrote the book, music, and lyrics for her nearly three-hour opus, and she also played a principal role, that of activist Alice Paul.)
Happily, Ms. Taub brought a lighter touch to her musical version of “As You Like It,” adapted with the playwright and director Laurie Woolery, which had its premiere as part of the Public Theater’s gratis Shakespeare in the Park series in 2017. It returns five years later, having lost neither its fizz nor its fortifying powers.
This “As You Like It” is not merely a tonic, you see. While presenting the play at a slimmed-down 95 minutes, which includes buoyant original songs that nod to everything from calypso to contemporary R&B, Ms. Taub (also the composer and lyricist) and Ms. Woolery actually sought to dig deeper into themes dangled in this pastoral rom-com — not one of the Bard’s more probing works — and to address them through a 21st century lens.
Predictably, this involves some tweaking of sexual orientation and gender roles. Shakespeare himself laid the groundwork for the latter, of course, as he did in a number of comedies; in this one, the heroine, Rosalind, disguises herself as a young man named Ganymede and proceeds to advise the hero, Orlando — with whom she is in love — on how to woo the woman he desires: Rosalind.
The action takes place in the forest of Arden, where Orlando and Rosalind join her father, a duke, in finding refuge from the tyranny of the duke’s usurping brother, and where three additional couples find romance. In Ms. Taub and Ms. Woolery’s iteration, two of those relationships are same-sex: Audrey, the country wench whom Shakespeare paired with Touchstone, the court clown who accompanies Rosalind to Arden, has become Andy; and Silvius, the shepherd who pursues his fetching colleague Phoebe, is now Silvia — adding a new wrinkle to Phoebe’s reluctance toward her suitor.
If these adjustments can suggest a certain self-consciousness on the surface, they inform a genuine and exuberant inclusiveness that transcends virtue signaling. Ms. Taub, reprising her wistful, endearing performance as the duke’s adamantly unromantic attendant, Jaques, greets the audience with a musical twist on one of the play’s most famous lines, singing, “All the world’s a stage/And everybody’s in the show/Nobody’s a pro.” In fact, the production is, like 2017’s, presented by the Public Theater’s Public Works program, which partners with community groups from across New York City to team professional artists with citizens from all walks of life.
Thus the enormous cast — or casts, as certain smaller and chorus roles are divided between two alternating ensembles — includes adults and children culled from organizations ranging from Domestic Workers United to the Bronx Wrestling Federation, which contributed a few beefy members for a scene in which Orlando proves his mettle to the court. Under Ms. Woolery’s guidance, their infectious enthusiasm enhances both the communal spirit and the joyful theatricality of this staging.
Like the other principals, the central lovers are indeed played by pros, both of them also alumni of the 2017 company. Rebecca Naomi Jones once again brings her earthy wit to Rosalind, while Ato Blankson-Wood’s more ingenuous Orlando charms the audience on his own terms. One of the funnier musical numbers finds the spry leading man surrounded by backing vocalists and dancers who suggest the Temptations as reimagined by a boy band choreographer. (A Tony Award winner for “Moulin Rouge,” Sonya Tayeh, crafted moves for the original production; the Broadway hoofer provided restaging and additional choreography for this one.)
Darius de Haas’s duke is another welcome holdover, his beatific presence and creamy tenor make this enchanting forest a welcoming home. A new design team adds to the mystical but comforting vibe, with Myung Hee Cho’s lean, fanciful sets and Isabella Byrd’s multi-colored neon lighting reminding us that magic can be spun from seemingly simple materials.
The simplest and most profound of all is repeated, again and again, in the show’s exhilarating finale. Enumerating and then batting away life’s challenges in song, the players declare, “Still I will love/Still I will love,” professional and amateur voices united in blissful defiance. It’s the kind of late summer night’s dream best experienced when you’re awake, and preferably not alone.