The team behind “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” has turned Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” into a rock musical, now opened at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and if you have to turn one of Shakespeare’s plays into a pop musical, “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is not a bad choice, if for no other reason than for a long time it was one of the least-loved of Shakespeare’s comedies — so who cares if it’s toyed with?
Of course, you don’t have to turn any of Shakespeare’s plays into a pop musical – but even that’s covered in this production. In some ways, Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman have fashioned their own entertainment — well-performed, enjoyable, busy and somewhat baffling.
Although attitudes are changing, Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” was disliked in large measure for what critics politely called its linguistic density – many of the puns, and indeed some of the words themselves, apparently scored with Elizabethan audiences but have been lost to subsequent theatergoers. “Here is a comedy without a happy ending….built out of words and exchanges rather than plot, but which contains no songs,” scholar John Pendergast explained in a book-length analysis published in 2002.
Few will complain that Michael Friedman has supplied the songs – nearly two dozen of them, some wonderfully tuneful and in a range of styles from ballad to boy band to doo wop. The songs, and their delivery especially by cast members Colin Donnell (Anything Goes, Jersey Boys), Patti Murin (Lysistrata Jones, Xanadu) and Rebecca Naomi Jones (Passing Strange, American Idiot) are the highlight of the evening.
But Friedman also supplied his own lyrics. Given that so many non-Shakespearean words are inserted into a show that director Alex Timbers has trimmed to about 100 minutes, it would be reasonable to view the Shakespeare in the Park production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” as something other than Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
In the Timbers and Friedman “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” the King and his three comrades who have sworn off all earthly pleasures in order to commit to the study of the classics are depicted as fraternity brothers. They solemnly dispose of their bong, beer cans, and condoms. They are at their fifth-year college reunion; we know this because of a banner “Welcome Class of 2008” strewn across John Lee Beatty’s gorgeously solid set, depicting a relatively rustic elite Northeastern college. No sooner have they sworn off women than their resolve is tested (this is in Shakespeare’s play) with the arrival of the Princess of France and her entourage, beautiful women all, wearing (this is not in Shakespeare) sorority dresses and name tags, and acting like party girls. Comic shenanigans and subplots ensue, involving characters that include a park ranger on a cute little scooter and a laid-back Californian in a Hawaiian shirt and Bryce Pinkham in silver-lame hot pants.
It is unclear what Timbers and Friedman are trying to say with all this — or if they’re trying to say anything. In “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” their deliberately anachronistic, sophomoric and ironic approach to American history wound up making a point about the uses and abuses of history. Here, they seem only interested in keeping us entertained — how else to explain their piling on to such excess that they even throw in a full high school marching band.
Maybe that’s all they need to do. After all, the show is free, the ushers are friendly — their t-shirts this season say “Staff & Love” — and the Public Theater seems to be doing what it can to make the Shakespeare in the Park experience even more review-proof than it already automatically is: The official opening night comes just six days before closing night.
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Love’s Labour’s Lost
Shakespeare in the Park, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Based on the play by William Shakespeare; songs by Michael Friedman; book adapted and directed by Alex Timbers; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Jennifer Moeller; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by Acme Sound Partners; music director, Justin Levine; choreography by Danny Mefford; wig design by Leah J. Loukas
Cast: Daniel Breaker (King), Kevin Del Aguila (Dull), Colin Donnell (Berowne), Rachel Dratch (Holofernes), Andrew Durand (Boyet), Kimiko Glenn (Maria), Jeff Hiller (Nathaniel), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Jaquenetta), Justin Levine (Moth), Patti Murin (Princess), Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Dumaine), Bryce Pinkham (Longaville), Charlie Pollock (Costard), Caesar Samayoa (Armado), Maria Thayer (Rosaline), Audrey Lynn Weston (Katherine) and Michael R. Douglass and Bradley Gibson (Ensemble).
Running time: About 100 minutes with no intermission