Situated amid the leafy splendor of Central Park, the Delacorte Theater offers an ideal open-air playground for As You Like It. In Shakespeare’s comedy, after all, feuding families and mixed-up couples find forgiveness and “I do”-worthy clarity by going into the woods and savoring the rare and special vibe in the Forest of Arden.
Call it reforestation at its best and most theatrical: The restorative grove has rooted again on the same Public Theater stage as part of Free Shakespeare in the Park. Back for a return run five years after its first and with a number of principal roles intact, this cheeky and big-hearted musical adaptation by Shaina Taub, who wrote the songs, and Laurie Woolery, who directs, offers a breezy summer diversion.
In this nearly sung-through take, the plot is streamlined to essentials. The mission is to keep it light, and that works. The Bard gets the first word here in a tacked-on prologue. “All the world’s a stage,” sings Jaques, a Debbie Downer-y observer played by Taub, who sports pigtails, patched overalls, and a voice seemingly dusted with baby powder. That particular line, of course, is cherry-picked from the play’s second act, and it works here to set the scene for everything that follows in this community-inclusive presentation.
This intro hints that the show aims to entertain. Between a batch of lively songs, an appealing (and enormous) cast of stage pros and eager amateurs, winks to the WWE and *NSYNC, and rustic puppets, it mostly hits the mark. “All the world’s a stage” also reminds us that people play roles, and sometimes they don’t really fit.
Orlando (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Rosalind (Rebecca Naomi Jones) can relate. He is a case of unrealized potential. She’s fettered by cookie-cutter expectations. Maybe together they can summon their true selves? But as soon as sparks ignite between them, trouble brews. Duke Frederick (Eric Pierre), Rosalind’s power-mad uncle, banishes her just as he exiled her father, Duke Senior (Darius de Haas).
Alongside her cousin, Celia (Idania Quezada), and the royal fool, Touchstone (Christopher M. Ramirez), Rosalind dashes to Arden. Meanwhile, Orlando learns his brother, Oliver (Renrick Palmer), wants him dead. So he, too, heads to the forest, where other young would-be lovers — written here with LGBTQ-friendly dynamics — encounter their own obstacles. Discord and roadblocks yield to harmony.
Taub's As You Like It score bursts with flavors — fitting for a work that prizes diversity. The melodies and rhythms roam from pop-rock to boy band to R&B and beyond. If her lyrics fall into predictable patterns, she also pulls off some fun surprises. She finds a near-perfect rhyme for “bra” in “Rosalind, Be Merry,” turns a name into a verb in “You Phoebe Me,” and serves up hamburgers and onion rings to woo in “Will U Be My Bride.” If music be the fast food of love, play on.
The production is wrapped up in a tidy package. Trees on Myung Hee Cho’s set boast clusters of leaves that look like pompoms. Emilio Sosa’s costumes are hippie-happy. Isabella Byrd pours on moody lighting. Billy Griffin restages Sonya Tayeh’s original choreography and adds spirited moves.
By the show’s end, there are four (count 'em) marriages and multiple mended fences. Duke Senior leads a rousing song in which he vows that when things go awry, and they will, “still I will love.” He and the whole cast then repeat the line dozens of times. It’s as if by declaring it enough, Arden’s feel-good properties will spread beyond its confines to trouble spots. If only.