“Nothing can ever make most of the puns and witticisms of Love’s Labour’s Lost seem contemporary again,” wrote the scholar Anne Barton. So why not jettison most of the text and turn the comedy into a musical mash-up reliant on references from our own day? Such is the sound idea of this 100-minute romp in Central Park from the Public Theater. Alex Timbers, who has adapted and directed, has jettisoned most of the text. Michael Friedman, who wrote the songs, has contributed less a coherent score than a series of ballads and ditties and showpieces drawing on everything from 1960s doo-wop to 1980s girl groups to 1990s boy bands.
No question that their collaboration – they also hatched the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – continues to be rich and lively. And when the comedy falls flat, as it does intermittently, especially in the scenes with the academic Holofernes and Nathaniel, there’s always a marching band waiting in the wings to enliven the action and remind us that this is a deliberately sophomoric evening.
Well, maybe a little more postgraduate than that. When we arrive at the Delacorte we are greeted by John Lee Beatty’s spectacular set: a fraternity-house lodge to our left, and a cantina to our right, where Armado, portrayed by an over-the-top Caesar Samayoa, and Jaquenetta, the ripely voiced Rebecca Naomi Jones, preside. Strewn between the locations is a banner welcoming back the class of 2008. We are witnessing a kind of reunion, perhaps of a classic New England college.
Rather than indulge in sodden, reunion-type festivities, however, the quartet of main male characters – led by the King, a rollicking Daniel Breaker, and Berowne, an energetic Colin Donnell – vow to shut themselves away and engage in study. But beautiful women arrive – led by the Princess, a poised Patti Murin, and Rosaline, a defiant Maria Thayer – and spark a comedy of sexual frustration.
Some of the verbal energy comes from the juxtaposition of modern pop language such as hip-hop and the Elizabethan English of Shakespeare. And some arises from our awareness of references: Costard, for instance, is an homage to the Matthew McConaughey character in Dazed and Confused. Mr Big’s 1991 hit, “To Be with You”, though, is an out-and-out borrowing. It’s what I left the theatre humming.