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‘Twelfth Night’ review: Public Theater triumphs with musical adaptation of a classic

With its 100-member chorus of community actors, this Public Works production is a tremendous addition to the Shakespeare in the Park season.

"Twelfth Night" stars Tony Award-winner Nikki M. James. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

‘Twelfth Night’ runs through Aug. 19 at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. For info on obtaining free tickets visit publictheater.org

At least two extraordinary things have come out of the Public Theater in recent years. One of them is, of course, “Hamilton.” The other is the Public Works series, in which countless regular New Yorkers (who belong to various community-based organizations) join together with professional actors to enact pageant-style musicals based on classic literary works at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.

From 2013 to 2017, the Public Theater ended each Shakespeare in the Park season with Public Works productions such as “The Tempest,” “The Odyssey” and most recently “As You Like It.” This year, in a major change of protocol, the 2016 Public Works production of “Twelfth Night” has returned as part of the core Shakespeare in the Park season, allowing it to run for five weeks instead of just a few nights.

“Twelfth Night” was originally staged by Kwame Kwei-Armah (who has since become artistic director of London’s Young Vic), so Oskar Eustis (artistic director of the Public Theater) is now coordinating the massive enterprise.

The return of “Twelfth Night” for an extended encore run is a tremendous validation of not just the societal goals of the Public Works series — including diversity arts education for all and putting the “public” at the center of the Public Theater — but also the merits of these productions as entertaining, poignant and vital community-oriented theater.

Integrating a catchy, pop-style score by singer-songwriter Shaina Taub into an abridged version of Shakespeare’s text, “Twelfth Night” is a fast-paced and accessible musical comedy adaptation in which Illyria becomes modern-day New Orleans.

The 100-member chorus of nonprofessionals (who are broken up into red and blue ensembles that appear at alternate performances) represents the Illyrian community, which hovers around the town square and excitedly gossips about the actions of the main characters.

One can’t help but think of a school or summer camp production where a handful of very talented performers (i.e. the future drama majors and aspiring actors) is joined by an oversized chorus that anyone could have joined. (Growing up, I appeared in many such productions, and was almost always part of the chorus.)

Some community members also appear in principal roles. Nikki M. James and Shuler Hensley (both Tony winners), Andrew Kober and Ato Blankson-Wood (both alumni of the “Hair” revival) and Taub are joined by Nanya-Akuki Goodrich, Troy Anthony and Daniel Hall (representing DreamYard, an arts organization for Bronx youth) and Jonathan Jordan (representing the Military Resilience Foundation, an arts organization for veterans).

Other community groups taking part in the production include the Brownsville Recreation Center, Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, Children’s Aid, Domestic Workers United and the Fortune Society.

The professional performances are terrific — including James’ strutting, R&B-inflected Viola, Taub’s cute and cheeky Feste and Hensley’s gruff but gentle Sir Toby — but the jubilant chorus is what is most striking and refreshing.

Of the many productions of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” I have seen in recent years, this is by far the most bright and upbeat. The play’s famous opening line of helpless melancholy — “If music be the food of love, play on” — has become the inspiration for a celebratory opening number, while the finale (“Eyes of Another”) promotes empathy and compassion.

The handful of characters that are traditionally shut out of the merriment (including the “notoriously abused” steward Malvolio and the lovesick sea captain Antonio) even get to join in. Play on, we say!

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