Isn’t “Love’s Labour’s Lost” about Berowne and Rosaline, those intelligent, articulate lovers who carry on a fierce flirtation via a battle of wit and words? Not in the version that Alex Timbers adapted and directed for Shakespeare in the Park. Modernized and musicalized, it’s now a buddy play about four friends (led by Colin Donnell’s rock-star-sexy Berowne) who learn the hard way that a dude isn’t a real man until he grows up. Michael Friedman has written funny and occasionally inspired songs for this bromance — but mainly for the guys, who barely make eye contact with the girls.
Timbers (hot to the touch after “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Here Lies Love”) has worked within the broad outline of Shakespeare’s plot and retained a surprising number of his lines. Beyond that, the show marches to its own drumbeat. For starters, the action has been relocated to a rustic resort hotel in the Berkshires, its good-time vibe indicated by the open bar and hot tub in John Lee Beatty’s tongue-in-cheek set design.
After a night of hard partying at their college reunion, the four hungover buds pledge to give up wine, women, song, weed and all that other good stuff to go into seclusion for three years of celibate study. In the show’s opening number, “Young Men,” Berowne (Donnell) leads the guys in a hilarious lament for the “callow and cavalier” life they are giving up. (“Don’t make me be 30 already / Don’t make me be responsible already / Don’t make me be grown up.”)
Although the song belongs to Berowne, it’s also a nice introduction to the three other young gallants who recklessly signed away their freedom: the King of Navarre (Daniel Breaker, who somehow maintains his regal dignity through all the foolishness), Dumaine (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) and Longaville (Bryce Pinkham), noblemen all, but just boys at heart.
But the fun goes flat the minute the girls arrive on the scene, wearing ugly prom dresses and shrieking like cheerleaders at a high-school basketball game. Their silly signature song, “Hey Boys,” lacks the ingenuity of “Young Men,” and none of the girls, not even Rosaline (Maria Thayer, wasted), are defined as characters or imprinted with a musical identity.
One femme who gets a better deal is Rebecca Naomi Jones, who was a knockout in “Murder Ballad.” Underused here, but still a wow in the role of Jaquenetta the barmaid, Jones gets to solo in one of the best songs in the show, “Love’s a Gun,” a deliciously creepy soliloquy on the dangers of falling in love. (“Love’s a crime, a bloody scene, a killing spree.”) As good as it is, the song hasn’t been given much of a production push.
Another subversively funny song, “I Love Cats” — which has absolutely nothing to do with anything, but is kind of brilliant — is assigned to the show’s music director, Justin Levine, winsome in the fly-away role of Moth. The number is also well positioned, its dark sensibility a bracing shot of wry to clear the palate after the inane “Hey Boys.”
Probably the most audacious song in the show is “Rich People,” in which Costard the clown (amusingly played by Charlie Pollack as a cynical hippie) leads the other local yahoos in a number that raises some touchy Town vs. Gown issues. They make a pretty strong case that the privileged moneyed classes are “taking stuff away from you and me.” As the song pointedly goes on, “They pay for better seats at plays that should be free / And they think it’s fine / To skip the line / And cut in front to pee.”
While these numbers come as welcome treats, the songs you’d expect to be the centerpiece of a romantic comedy — those in which the four suitors match wits with their mistresses — don’t have much life to them. A lot more energy has gone into staging the solo numbers, like the wonderfully clever “Change of Heart” sung by Berowne, in which the guys struggle to understand and express their feelings in properly poetic fashion.
And once the four friends finally get the courage to declare themselves in “Are You a Man” (which contains the immortal Shakespearean line: “Women are the books, the arts, the academes”), it’s one clever production number after another, right up to the end of the show.
Genuine wit has gone into the takeoff on “A Chorus Line,” a production number that’s almost as funny as the takedown of crotch-clutching Bieber-boys. And only the arrival of the Middletown High School Marching Brass Band can top the guest appearance of four turtleneck-wearing East German performance artists who present an “obtuse, aesthetically confrontational” work of art.
This is a real fun party — too bad nobody invited the girls.