They’re calling it “The Barenaked Bard,” and that’s not far from the truth. Antoni Cimolino’s inspired decision to commission a score for his production of “As You Like It” from Canadian pop group the Barenaked Ladies has resulted in the first Shakespearean hit at the Stratford Festival since Christopher Plummer’s “King Lear” played to SRO crowd in 2002.
Take an intriguing directorial concept (late-1960s hippies), combine it with a fresh young cast and top the whole thing off with a bunch of great tunes. The end result is not only proving boffo with auds, but might turn out to be a groundbreaking event for North America’s largest repertory theater.
In recent years, Stratford has kept comfortably in the black, thanks to near-capacity crowds at the two Broadway musicals it programs each season. (“Hello, Dolly!” and “Into the Woods” are on this year’s lineup.) But the Shakespeare offerings haven’t drawn crowds nearly as large, and their quality has been decidedly spotty.
An exception to this has been the work of Cimolino, the fest’s executive director and second-in-command to artistic director Richard Monette. Cimolino has been working hard with mainly younger members of the company, forging a style that concentrates on clarity of text and honesty of emotional intent. He usually partners with Santo Loquasto as designer, resulting in shows of strong visual appeal as well.
What he’s lacked until now has been a big popular hit, but “As You Like It” should change that.
The flower-power setting is more than a mere gimmick; people expecting “Hair” in blank verse should look elsewhere. This is an honest reading of the play, full of melancholy as well as mirth, with a happy ending all the more appreciated for being hard-won.
Duke Frederick’s court is decadent and militaristic at the same time, peopled by weirdos who wouldn’t have been out of place in Andy Warhol’s Factory. But there’s a European edge to the uniformed men who keep everything under tight rein, which somehow works well with Shakespeare’s text.
Sara Topham’s initially serious Rosalind, complete with school uniform, gets liberated when she flees to the forest of Arden, run by Barry MacGregor, who plays Duke Senior as a well-spoken Grizzly Adams.
The morose Jaques becomes instead a sardonic Dennis Hopper-esque cynic, whom Graham Abbey delivers to perfection, while Stephen Ouimette’s Touchstone has the flip air of Tom Wolfe in his glory days.
Composed by Steven Page and arranged and played by his group, the Barenaked Ladies, the music is consistently appropriate and tuneful, with Shakespeare’s lyrics sitting comfortably on the folk-rock beat. Dan Chameroy, as Amiens, performs most of the songs with a pleasing style that combines Broadway and the Beatles.
Perfs are first-rate throughout. Topham is a charmer as Rosalind, Dion Johnstone a persuasive Orlando and Sophie Goulet the funniest Celia in memory, while Abbey and Ouimette make sure the comedy scores as well.
Even smaller roles like Steven Sutcliffe’s Le Beau, Sean Arbuckle’s Oliver and Jean-Michel LeGal’s Silvius are played with distinction, making it clear Cimolino knows how to get the best from his cast.
Loquasto’s set is a strange but effective arrangement of ladders and umbrellas, but his costumes are the real delight — sampling every nuance of the period, from Carnaby Street to Woodstock, to full and fanciful effect.
By the time a smiling Maharishi (Bernard Hopkins) leads everyone in a rocking finale to Donna Feore’s right-on period choreography, the feeling of warmth and joy in the theater is palpable. It’s the summer of love all over again, thanks to this groovy kind of Bard.