Love is many things in this musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost – a gun, a game and most of all, a puzzlement. Written and directed by Alex Timbers and composed by Michael Friedman, this production in performances at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park is a lighthearted, thoroughly entertaining and mildly confusing adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy about the neverending emotions that continue to puzzle and delight men and women.
Timbers and Friedman have adapted Shakespeare’s text about the King of Navarre (Daniel Breaker) and his three friends, Longaville (Bryce Pinkham), Dumaine (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) and Berowne (Colin Donnell), who vow to swear off all earthly pleasures, including women, in favor of intense study and reflection for three years. Their devotion and willpower are quickly put the to the test with the arrival of a Princess (Patti Murin) and her posse (Maria Thayer, Kimiko Glenn, Audrey Lynn Weston). Attractions are quickly formed between the two sets of four, and much fun and confusion – and song and dance numbers – quickly result.
The show is staged in a 21st-century frat house setting, with modern-day clothing and musical compositions. The widely varied score includes contemplative and self-mocking solos, 80s-style rock ballads and high-kicking numbers reminiscent of A Chorus Line.
Featuring a cast of talented young actors, the company of Love’s Labour’s Lost is especially winning. Donnell is charming and charismatic as the reflective Berowne, and his love interest Rosalind (Maria Thayer), is equally excellent, giving a thoughtful performance and shining in her few solos. Breaker is very funny as the single-minded King, while Murin gives a bright, but slightly hard, edge to the Princess. Pinkham shines, quite literally, in his big solo number, and Caesar Samayoa is very entertaining as Armado, who longs for the lovely barmaid played by Rebecca Naomi Jones. Jones, always a commanding presence onstage, sings the surprisingly poignant and thought-provoking song “Love’s a Gun.”
Each of the songs in Love’s Labour’s Lost was winning in its own way, but the production’s weakness lay in the lack of cohesiveness, tying together the songs with dialogue and plotlines. Even the love song dedicated to cats was charmingly performed by by Justin Levine, but what did it have to do with the plot? And Jones was outstanding as she sang, “Love’s a Gun.” The song itself is fascinating – I found myself wishing I had a recording of it – but I also wondered how her character had learned all that she sang of. And while I enjoyed the number performed by the working-class characters which commented on the idle ways of the wealthy, it did not fit into the 90-minute musical about the four pairs of lovers.
Staged on sets by John Lee Beatty, with costumes by Jennifer Moeller and choreography by Danny Mefford, much comedy does ensue in this bright musical. The material elicits many laughs, but the story does inspire some sobering questions. The young men and women seem to be searching for some purpose in life, and they seem to think it will come in the form of a romantic relationship. And, even more disturbingly, why do the women travel in a pack, following orders from the Princess? Why do they all do what she says? Why is it necessary for them to play so many games, with masks and grand gestures (German performance art and boy-band songs, amongst other things, are performed to win the affections of the women), rather than simply say what they are thinking and feeling?
As one character commented on the sets of lovers, “They make the drama to avoid facing the void.” That felt all too true – and timely – as I immediately thought of friends obsessing over Facebook posts and Tweets as well as late-night texts. If only real-life drama could take place in as charming of a setting, and with as entertaining peers, as Love’s Labour’s Lost featured.