When the reimagined musical production of As You Like It, co-adapted by Shaina Taub (who also created the music and lyrics) and Laurie Woolery (The Public Theater’s Director of Public Works, who also directs), made its debut with Free Shakespeare in the Park in 2017, it played a very short weekend run. It’s now back at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater through September 11, and, as The Public’s Artistic Director Oscar Eustis proclaimed in the program, it’s “the best show that Public Works has ever done.” I wholeheartedly agree, and as a Shakespeare purist, that’s saying a lot.
Though The Bard’s classic pastoral comedy has been dramatically reworked and updated, the current condensed version of the original consummately captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s story, delivers his momentous message of love and acceptance, and provides proof positive of his universality. It’s also exuberantly entertaining and uplifting to watch, with a diverse company that brings together top-notch veterans from Broadway and two large rotating ensembles of community members of all ages (7 to 81) from across NYC’s five boroughs.
The narrative’s central plot points of familial dysfunction and reconciliation, and Shakespeare’s popular device of mistaken identity, remain the same, though presented in a new post-modern vision. Duke Frederick has usurped the throne from his elder brother Duke Senior and has banished him and his daughter Rosalind to the Forest of Arden; her close cousin Celia decides to join her there, where they take on the guises of Ganymede (a male) and Aliena. They fall in love with the estranged brothers Orlando and Oliver, whom they ultimately marry in a group ceremony with two other (here same-sex) couples, and – as the attendant Jaques notes in a meta-theatrical aside, “Spoiler alert: It’s a happy ending” – everyone reunites in joy and harmony, inspired by the open and kind-hearted community in the woods, “Under the Greenwood Tree,” led by Duke Senior.
Much, though not all, of the Shakespearean language has been eliminated, replaced by contemporary lingo and expressed in rhythmic song in the largely sung-through show. Gone, for example, is Jaques’ iconic “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy, which has been given new form, words, and import in Taub’s lyrics, “All the world’s a stage, and everybody’s in the show, nobody’s a pro” – a clever double-entendre that clearly references the inclusive casting as much as the journey of life. Other witty updates include a present-day ring in which Orlando battles his opponents (played by members of the Bronx Wrestling Federation – one of the participating community organizations) and a romantic ballad, “Will U Be My Bride,” sung by the love-stricken Orlando in boy-band fashion, with back-up moves and vocalists in matching outfits. It’s one of the many musical genres of Taub’s appealing eclectic score, which encompasses pop, rap, country, calypso, and more (with music direction by Andrea Grody and orchestrations by Mike Brun), enlivened by Sonya Tayeh’s original choreography (with additional choreography and restaging by Billy Griffin, which suits all levels of the expansive ensemble).
Leading the engaging professional cast are the outstanding Darius de Haas as the generous and compassionate Duke Senior, the irresistibly sweet-voiced Shaina Taub as the observant Jaques, Ato Blankson-Wood as the youthfully naïve Orlando, and Rebecca Naomi Jones as the determined Rosalind, who uses her guise to secure his love. They are given fine support by featured actors Idania Quezada as Celia, Renrick Palmer as Oliver, Eric Pierre as Duke Frederick, and the hilarious Christopher M. Ramirez as the wise fool Touchstone. All deliver the personalities, humor, and community spirit with aplomb, as does the rest of the effulgent company.
The artistic design of the show is equally enchanting. Myung Hee Cho’s set contains an illuminated bridge with ducal flags and trees of the forest with branches culminating in fabric flowers and hung with streamers in every color of the rainbow. Costumes by Emilio Sosa range from the crown and uniforms worn by Duke Frederick and his army to mid-century dresses, island garb, and Touchstone’s striped vaudevillian-style three-piece suit. Isabella Byrd’s colorful lighting sweeps around the audience and the open sky, Sun Hee Kil’s sound envelops us, and life-size deer puppets by James Ortiz prance lightly around the stage, worked by a team of “puppet-deers.”
As with its iconic setting in the Forest of Arden, this joyous piece of participatory musical theater is welcoming and transforming, transporting us to a place where everyone is embraced. There are just a few more performances left in the current Free Shakespeare in the Park remount, so be sure to get your complimentary tickets this weekend, before the magical beauty, love, and accord of As You Like It disappear from the Delacorte. We can only hope they remain in everyone’s heart.
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, without intermission.
As You Like It plays through Sunday, September 11, 2022, at Free Shakespeare in the Park, performing at the Delacorte Theater, 81 Central Park West, NYC. Tickets are free; for more information on how to access them, go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter the theater and masks are recommended while attending the performance.