It is not Duke Orsino but a tad of a lad, who looks to be about 6 years old, who sidles up to the jester Feste—in the Public Theater’s musical adaptation of Will Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night—and makes that immortal request: If music be the food of love, play on.
Since the Feste of the occasion is Shaina Taub, who simultaneously serves as bandleader, piano player, accordionist, and who also wrote the whole damn score herself, she turns out to the perfect person to place in charge of the revels. Taub is, at present, one of the better-kept secrets of the current-day musical. Until tonight, that is; Taub’s score is Broadway-ready, and she is a smashingly good charmer of a performer.
But that’s only the first of myriad delights on display. Twelfth Night has been reduced to a swift 90 minutes with songs, which means that it is a veritable parade of delights with few lulls. It was especially refreshing to hear gulps of surprise at the machinations of mistaken identity; unlike at your typical Twelfth Night production, it seems that a distinct portion of the audience this production is reaching are altogether new to the piece. Their delight, along with ringing laughter of surprise from assorted youngsters in the audience at the surprises, only heightens the carnival atmosphere.
Because this production does, indeed, reach out to the community. Public Works, a division of the Public, was founded six years ago to—specifically—create “unforgettable experiences of rich civic and artistic excellence” by merging professional artists with community groups across the city. Their past summer musicals have toured the boroughs, followed by a brief visit to the Delacorte following the last several Shakespeare in the Park seasons.
The rambunctious Public Works 2016 production of Twelfth Night was so festively received that it has now been revised and remounted for a full-length Delacorte run. Taub and choreographer Lorin Latarro have returned for the reboot; director Kwame Kwei-Armah being unavailable—he is now artistic director of London’s Young Vic—the Public’s Oskar Eustis has restaged the new production as co-director.
If the thought of a professional/amateur effort sounds worthy but somewhat academic, please obliterate that thought. Taub’s version of Twelfth Night can only be described as jubilant. By crowding 50 members of various community groups on stage, the entire place takes off. Amateurs, yes; but well-rehearsed, talented, and above all energetically engaged in every moment. One scene—a sort of fantasy moment for the overbearingly pompous Malvolio—turns into a full-scale production number which brings to mind another Public Theater moment: Michael Bennett’s “One” number in A Chorus Line, complete with a stageful of performers in sparkly top hats (in a bright yellow hue, as in those cross-gartered stockings). Except here, they’ve got more than twice as many dancers as Bennett had, untrained but passionately enthusiastic.
The cast of about two dozen is augmented by the community contingent, drawn from a wide array of groups—from tots to veterans—and divided into two alternating 50-person casts. We saw the “Red Ensemble,” and you’d have to imagine that the “Blue Ensemble” is just as delightful.
All of which would be beside the point if this Twelfth Night did not deliver as a top-grade musical show. Much of the credit belongs to Taub, who not only wrote the score but is presumably responsible for adapting the Shakespearean text as well. The songs are impressive, canny, and mighty friendly; I suppose that comparisons to a long-ago Shakespeare in the Park confection, John Guare and Galt MacDermot’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, are in order. As for Taub—on the page, on the stage, and otherwise plugging away in the pit—she is a marvel and will surely be swept up to any heights she aspires to. While comparisons of this sort are not in order, she demonstrates the type of creatively charismatic presence of that fellow at the center of a more recent Public musical, Hamilton.
The other burst of radiance supporting this attraction comes from the leading lady of evening, or rather the leading lady forced to don male attire. Nikki M. James has given consistently strong performances—including as Portia in last summer’s trumped-up Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar—since taking the town and taking a Tony as Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon. She here reveals that she can handily carry a musical on her shoulders, with overabundant charm and a flair for broad humor that has heretofore been somewhat hidden.
Also prominent in Illyria is Shuler Hensley, who from role to role seems never to make a misstep. Here he essays Sir Toby Belch, and he indeed gives what you might call a “belch” of a performance. When not onstage, it seems like they can’t get him safely in his dressing room; he’s content to roam the aisles, sometimes heckling and sometimes seeming to simply enjoy the fine summer’s night air. Also contributing to the fun are Ato Blankson-Wood, as a most sympathetic Orsino; Nanya-Akuki Goodrich as a droll Olivia (Taub has the inspired idea of trailing the mourning Countess, always, with a trio blaring Dixieland jazz); Troy Anthony as Sebastian, albeit with considerably less stage time than his twin; and Lori Brown-Niang as Maria. Special mention goes to Andrew Kober, as a highly entertaining, secretly singing-and-dancing Malvolio. Which tempts us to mention that this is the only musical we recall that features a port-a-potty.
Music is indeed the food of love, at least since the Bard penned this thought back around the turn of the century. The seventeenth century, that is. So “play on,” by all means; most especially if you have Shaina Taub in the house.
Twelfth Night opened July 31, 2018, at the Delacorte Theater and runs through August 19. Tickets and information: publictheater.org