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Review | ‘As You Like It’ jubilantly redefines ‘community’ theater

The cast of As You Like It
Fatemata Krubally, Christopher M. Ramirez, and Almostafa “Mustafa” Elnoor (foreground) with the community ensemble of Public Works’ musical adaptation of As You Like It, adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery, music and lyrics by Shaina Taub, original choreography by Sonya Tayeh, choreography restaging and additional choreography by Billy Griffin, and directed by Laurie Woolery.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

“Spoiler alert: it’s a happy ending,” warns writer and performer Shaina Taub in her joyful and user-friendly 90-minute musical version of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy “As You Like It,” which is being produced by the Public Theater as this summer’s final Shakespeare in the Park production at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.

Taub and director Laurie Woolery’s adaptation was first produced by the Public Theater in 2017 as part of its celebrated Public Works series, in which professional actors join together with everyday New Yorkers from all five boroughs in pageant-style musicals inspired by the classics, that have ranged from Shakespeare adaptations to Disney’s “Hercules.”

“As You Like It” was originally slated to receive a full Shakespeare in the Park run (once again, with a huge ensemble of community members) in 2020. As a result of the pandemic shutdown, the Public Theater instead produced a documentary about the 2017 production titled “Under the Greenwood Tree,” which is still available for free viewing online.

Taub (who previously musicalized Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”) is quickly establishing herself as a prominent songwriter. “Suffs,” her musical about the Women’s Suffrage Movement, received a sold-out Off-Broadway run in the spring. She is also currently working with Elton John on a Broadway-bound musical of “The Devil Wears Prada.”

“As You Like It” is ideally suited for musical adaptation. In fact, the play itself already contains several songs. The plotline (full of romantic angst, adventure, sport, and eccentric supporting characters) has not been altered.

Rosalind (Rebecca Naomi-Jones, who struggled vocally at my performance, but otherwise makes for a spunky heroine) falls in love at first sight with the gentle Orlando (an earnest Ato Blankson-Wood) and is then banished from the royal court by her corrupt uncle. Joined by the jester Touchstone (Christopher M. Ramirez, mischievous and flashy) and dressed as a man, Rosalind sets out for the Forest of Arden, where her exiled father, Duke Senor (Darius de Haas, soulful and loving), is in residence with his band of followers, including the philosophizing Jaques (Taub, with pigtails and a cap).

Taub’s folk-pop score is well-integrated and surprisingly contemporary, finding spots for the protagonists to more fully express themselves, humorously adding R&B backup singers for romantic proposals, and turning the “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy into both an opening number and a recurring theme.

The production is full of novel touches, including seamlessly incorporating same-sex relationships, having Duke Senor’s followers resemble hippies (who might have stepped out of the Public Theater’s 2008 revival of “Hair”), portraying deer with full-size puppets that gallop across the stage, and treating the wrestling match between Orlando and Charles as a fully-blown WWE spectacle (complete with a wrestling ring, costumes, entrance music, and cheering fans).

It is hard to think of a recent production of the play itself that was as satisfying as this. If it has any drawback, it is the fact that it makes audience members envious that they are not part of the large and diverse ensemble of community members (which has been split into two rotating casts).

Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Visit publictheater.org for directions and info on obtaining free tickets. Through Sept. 11.

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