The Public Works’ musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It is a charming and colorful evening of song and comedy which remains faithful to the original play. Seen in a brief run during September of 2017, the show now is the second main stage production of the Summer 2022 Season at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater led by returning cast members Rebecca Naomi Jones, Darius de Haas and Ato Blankson-Wood, and an all new production team.
Celebrating both the 60th anniversary of Free Shakespeare in the Park as well as the tenth anniversary of the Public Works program combining professional actors and community members from across New York, As You Like It has been adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery, Director of Public Works, with music and lyrics by Taub, responsible for the musical adaptation of Twelfth Night in 2016 and 2018 and her new historical musical Suffs in 2022.
Public Works is a project which combines community partnerships with professional actors, in this case filling the stage with 63 non-professionals at each performance, including a red ensemble and a blue ensemble which alternate days. This year’s community partners include Brownsville Recreation Center, Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, Children’s Aid, DreamYard, Domestic Workers United, The Fortune Society, and Military Resilience Foundation. In addition, the athletes in the wrestling tournament are from the Bronx Wrestling Federation. The participants take part in workshops and classes that go on throughout the year leading up to their on-stage performance in the late summer musical at the Delacorte.
While As You Like It has always celebrated love in various forms, this adaptation has made it even more about a community of acceptance and transformation love, adding two same-sex couples and switching the genders of three other minor characters. Performed in modern dress, As You Like It has a contemporary feel although the dialogue is still from Shakespeare. It also enhances the joyousness of a comedy by reducing the number of characters and incidents so that the plot seems more linear and direct.
For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, the back story is that Duke Frederick has usurped the kingdom of his brother Duke Senior who has fled to the nearby Forest of Arden with his court. Frederick has allowed his niece Rosalind to remain as she is a boon companion to his daughter Celia. Fearing her popularity, he banishes her just at the same time that Orlando de Boys obtains his wrath by winning a wrestling tournament against the favorite Bronco. Rosalind dressed as a young man renamed “Ganymede” and Celia now “Aliena” flee to the forest with the court jester Touchstone, just as Orlando does with his servant Ada (originally Adam).
While Rosalind and Orlando have previously fallen in love from afar, he does not recognize her dressed as a young man. He festoons the trees with love notes to this lady who he thinks is far away, and she teaches him to woo her as “Rosalind” in the guise of Ganymede. In the meantime, Touchstone both falls in love with a forest workman, Andy (originally Audrey) who has a follower William and meddles in the affair of Phoebe and Silvia (originally Silvius). Eventually Orlando’s evil brother (who falls in love with Celia on sight) and Duke Frederick have reformations and end up in the forest and all is concluded happily with a great big celebration.
Taub’s entertaining score is very eclectic containing pop, rock, calypso, R&B, and Broadway rhythms. Always melodic, they are sung by performers with excellent voices as well as forwarding the story. Two of the songs, “All the World’s A Stage” and “Under the Greenwood Tree” take their cues from verses in Shakespeare’s play. While Woolery’s direction is rather conventional placing all the scenes front and center, she gets excellent performances from her large cast. The musical staging which also includes Sonya Tayeh’s original 2017 choreography recreated by Billy Griffin includes two clever numbers backed by a boy band of four singers and dancers dressed all in white who rise out of the stage floor on a raised platform and perform under the punning name of the De Boys Dancers.
As one of Shakespeare’s iconic heroines, Rebecca Naomi Jones (Oklahoma!, American Idiot, Passing Strange) gives a layered performance as a self-possessed young lady who is baffled by love at first sight. As her love interest, Ato Blankson-Wood (Long Day’s Journey into Night/Slave Play, Lysistrata Jones) is rather bland but pleasant as Orlando who is confused by his feelings for a person he erroneously thinks is the wrong gender. Darius de Haas (Shuffle Along, Marie Christine) is a joyful, authoritative Duke Senior, while Eric Pierre as his brother Duke Frederick is more than usually angry, dictatorial and tyrannical. Taub herself appears as the philosopher Jaques in a somewhat cut down role but gets to sing her version of the iconic “All the a World’s Stage” both as a prologue and epilogue to the show.
As Rosalind’s boon companion, Idania Quezada makes a feisty Celia where she is usually played as passive and weak. Orlando’s treacherous brother Oliver is played by Renrick Palmer with all of the venom the role requires until his transformation after almost being eaten by a lion. Christopher M. Ramirez as the court jester Touchstone, and Bianca Edwards (Phoebe), Brianna Cabrera (Silvia) and Jonathan Jordan (Andy) as denizens of the Forest of Arden are all memorable in small but exuberant roles.
The clever physical production adds to the fun. While Myung Hee Cho’s simple setting is nothing more than a bridge behind three trees which regroup on a revolving stage, Isabella Byrd’s astonishing lighting design includes small spotlights of different colored lights hidden in the trees creating alternating moods throughout. The bridge is also outlined in lights that change color with each scene. The brilliantly colored costumes by Emilio Sosa appear to have no two the same, (except for the wrestling tournament in which teams of cheering spectators are in red or blue) adding to the stage picture. The finale with its four marriages puts all of the leading characters in white outfits, all different. Puppet designer James Ortiz has created lovely forest animals who figure in the plot.
Public Works’ musical adaptation of As You Like It is an enchanting evening of summer fun under the stars. Trimmed to a long one act, the story is accessible for both those who know the Shakespearean original and those who don’t. The score is always easy on the ears and has many crowd pleasers. The huge cast led by Rebecca Naomi Jones as Rosalind and including non-professional community partners is totally comfortable with the Elizabethan language and the contemporary score by Shaina Taub. With this show, Shakespeare in the Park has a real winner.
As You Like It (through September 11, 2022)
Free Shakespeare in the Park
The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, enter at 81st Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan
Free tickets distributed at Noon at the Delacorte Box Office to those on prior line, Downtown Distribution Lottery at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place, or by Mobile Ticket Lottery powered by TodayTix at http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission