In all my years of attending Shakeapeare in the Park productions I’ve never seen one as goofy as Love’s Labour’s Lost, which plays (free!) through Sunday. It’s worth standing on line for, in pleasant August weather, if you don’t mind a few, um, liberties taken with the text, which has been given a raucous musicalization by adaptor and director Alex Timbers and composer Michael Friedman.
The talents behind the memorable historical pastiche Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson have ramped up, rather than tamped down, their anything goes style for the Bard. Following a loose-limbed Comedy of Errors in the park, what we have here is one of his earliest comedies done up like Bridesmaids, or Where the Boys Are, with a touch of National Lampoon’s Animal House and a few f-words, which I’ve never heard uttered before at the Delacorte. And in the context of a fun night out it pretty much works, though I’m dubious about a rumored Broadway transfer. (Timbers’ Here Lies Love, another hit for the Public, is also in limbo now; again, staid Broadway isn’t right for the show, which requires a more versatile nightclub space.)
The show, rather easily synopsized, is one of the least daunting Shakespeares, and accommodates stretching. (Kenneth Branagh filmed a Broadway-inflected musical of it in 2000, with Alicia Silverstone and Nathan Lane.) The young King of Navarre (Daniel Breaker, showing gravitas to match the humor he brought to Passing Strange and Shrek the Musical, where he played Donkey) retires to a country estate with three of his friends for a period of contemplation after a spell of roistering. As fate would have it, the Princess of France (Patti Murin) and three of her friends are on a college reunion spree at the same resort, severely testing their vow. Dashing Colin Donnell, from the recent Anything Goes revival (and the CW superhero show Arrow), plays the most conflicted of the king’s attendants, and should jump to the head of casting lists with his funny, sexy performance. A crazy quilt of supporting characters, including a don (Caesar Samayoa) with a yen for a barmaid (Rebecca Naomi Jones), and a stern instructor (pint-sized Saturday Night Live veteran Rachel Dratch), add to the merriment. Think a comic Spring Awakening–a little classicism, a little modern-day hijinx.
Actually a lot of amusement, much from Friedman’s funny songs (like the scathing “Rich People” and the barmaid’s torchy “Love’s a Gun”), which are goosed by Timbers’ clever staging and a set, by the great John Lee Beatty, that gives the orchestra an actual watering hole to play in. Some things you’ll see in this Love’s Labour’s Lost–a Segway, a golf cart, parodies of Cats and A Chorus Line, a high school marching band playing a Rock of Ages standard from the 90s (which the Times’ Ben Brantley initially mistook for an original number in his review), and East German performance artists. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any sillier, Timbers snaps his rubber-band conception back to Shakespeare, for a profoundly ambivalent ending. The show is called Love’s Labour’s Lost, after all. (Shakespeare may have written a followup, Love’s Labour’s Won, so we can carbon-date the word “sequel” to the late 16th century.)
Enough reading. You have two nights left to see the show, so bring your lawn chair to Central Park (7 am at the latest, perhaps earlier given the weekend) and camp out for a seat (free!). It’s like Father Public gave the keys to the Cadillac that is the Delacorte to the kids and let them go joyriding.
Lasting longer than two more nights, though not much longer to judge from withering reviews, is the new Broadway musical Soul Doctor, which answers the question, “What good are critics?” No good at ID’ing 90s hits; useful for diagnosing problems with a Broadway-bound show, however. Check any review of its Off Broadway engagement last season and you’ll see the same things–praise for star Eric Anderson, who received a Drama Desk nomination playing “rock and roll rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach, and iffiness over the vapid book, same-seeming songs, dull staging, and length, among other questionables. With Anderson retained, everything else might have been addressed, and the revised song list handed me by a publicist indicates some tinkering. The fundamentals remain broken.
What might have been a real-life fusion of The Jazz Singer (conflict over family traditions) and Hair (60s spirituality, the Village Gate, Haight Ashbury, admiring “She-brews” for Carlebach as he leaves New York to find his own groove) is instead a muddle. While Anderson performs appealingly as Carlebach, the man, pulled like taffy by his old world parents and peers and the musical horizons opened to him by his friend Nina Simone (a brash, life-giving Amber Iman), is maddeningly passive, acted upon and rarely acting, which is exasperating for two and a half hours. (His daughter has suggested a more-than-friends relationship between her father and Simone, an exploitable possibility expunged by the ever-upbeat, relentlessly uncontroversial book.) We get tepid hand-wringing under the occasionally psychedelic lighting as Shlomo (pronounced “Shy-a-lomo” by Simone) struggles to find himself and wheezy jokes that you can see coming from the cheap seats. “You don’t remember life under a ruthless dictator?” says Carlebach’s mother, as his rabbi dad laments taking his sons from Vienna to America as world war brewed. “For 48 years I’ve lived under a ruthless dictator,” says papa, with a twinkle. I admit I chuckled at the delivery, still, oy.
According to the Playbill, book writer and director Daniel S. Wise “authored a multivolume codification of Talmudic law.” One thing this critic can say is that Soul Doctor is the best musical ever written and directed by an author of a multivolume codification of Talmudic law.
Finally, my review of the first “real” show to open in the 2013-2014 Broadway season, First Date. Dismissed as a suburban-skewing, “bridge and tunnel” musical, I found it mostly charming, thanks to stars Zachary Levi (Chuck) and Krysta Rodriguez (Smash). You didn’t like it? “Fuck off!” as they say in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Say now, that is.