New Yorkers couldn’t ask for a sweeter summertime lift than Free Shakespeare in the Park’s vibrant, contemporary and very funny musical adaptation of Twelfth Night. Conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah (who directs with Oskar Eustus) and Shaina Taub (who wrote the music and lyrics, and performs), this colorful, spirited production is a joy from start to finish.
With a large cast of professionals (in the lead roles, all excellent) and community members from all five of the city’s boroughs (as the ensemble of townfolk), this Twelfth Night is a “re-imagining” of the popular 2016 staging by the Public Theatre’s Public Works program, and features 23 lively, pop-rock-R&B songs composed by the accordion-playing Taub.
Though the spoken dialogue is all Shakespeare, Taub’s lyrics cleverly convey the Bard’s tale with a decidedly contemporary edge. In one song, the shipwrecked, disguised-as-a-man Viola (the gorgeous-voiced Nikki M. James) sings “As a girl I was invisible to the world” and “Do these clothes conceal or reveal my soul?” And if you think Taub won’t take full advantage of music being the food of love, think again and play on.
In an exuberant, seamless melding of song, choreographed dance, sign language and gesture, Twelfth Night, of course, tells the story of young Viola, who washes ashore Illyria, disguises herself as “Cesario” (here with the help of a natty tailored suit) and promptly falls in love with Duke Orsino (Ato Blankson-Wood), who loves Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich), who loves Cesario. And round and round.
So generous in spirit is this production that even the vain Malvolio (Andrew Kober) gets a big, splashy Broadway-style number, not to mention some respect and compassion.
And while Kwei-Armah, Eustus and Taub certainly aren’t the first to notice the not-so-hidden love of Antonio (Jonathan Jordan) for Sebastian (Troy Anthony), they break ground with a perfect, unspoken resolution that, without rewriting a word, finally includes Antonio in Shakespeare’s happy ending-for-all. Perfect.
Twelfth Night runs through August 19 at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.