Before the start of this entertaining, pared down 90-minute intermission-less musical version of Shakespeare’s ”Twelfth Night,” there was already an infectious air of celebration on this particular Friday night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The stage was not only crowded with cast members chosen from various organizations and institutions in the Public Theater’s outreach Public Works program aiming to bring participation in the arts from throughout the city. Members of the audience for this Free Shakespeare in the Park production were also on stage mingling with the actors whom they would soon be watching. The picture was merrily colorful, given the array of costumes that stood out under the bright lighting.
The weather was iffy, with a steady rain having stopped conveniently as the show got underway. Little did we know that later in the production it would have to be halted briefly before resuming when the returned rain increased, and that by the end, when Shakespeare’s plot was being worked out, a downpour would begin anew, but the undeterred cast gallantly completed the show as if the sun were shining while we in the audience sat with our ponchos and rain coats and watched without regret. There was so much fun being had that most of us could not be bothered to worry about being a bit soaked.
This shortened “Twelfth Night” has been conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub, with music and lyrics by Taub and choreography by Lorin Latarro. Co-direction is by Oskar Eustis and Kwei-Armah. The reaching-out concept results in a dramatically ethnic mix of performers, some seasoned Equity members, some newcomers. The play lends itself to turning it into a romp in this free-wheeling, joyful conception.
Composer Taub sets the tone playing Feste, the clown, and her performance is winsome, with her singing and deft keyboard playing, and with the band doing fine work from its sheltered position. Taub infuses her performance with sprightly humor in tune with the overall spirit.
The plot, you will recall, is set in Illyria and involves Viola, nicely played by Nikki M. James, and her twin brother Sebastian (an excellent Troy Anthony). Having been shipwrecked, each fears the other has drowned. To gain employment with Orsino (Ato Blankson-Wood), Viola disguises herself as a male with the name Cesario. There evolves the typical Bard mix-up until all is straightened out. Viola loves Orsino, but Orsino loves Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich), and sends Viola (Cesario) to help woo her, but Olivia falls in love with Cesario. There are more complications, and ultimately, of course, the twins are united and all works out in the romance department.
There is a big dose of amusement in the trick played on the pretentious Malvolio (a very funny Andrew Kober), made to think that Olivia loves him, and much is made of the ruse and the shabby comic treatment that takes Malvolio down mercilessly. Other appealing casting includes Shuler Hensley as Sir Toby Belch, Daniel Hall as Sir Andrew and Jonathan Jordan as Antonio.
A production like this hits the highlights of the play with the aim of providing sheer fun, thanks to the musical creativity, eager performances and an atmosphere that makes for delight in the park even when the heavens conspire against it. Through August 19 at the Delacorte Theater, entrance from Central Park and 81st Street. Reviewed August 1, 2018.