Review - Public Works' THE TEMPEST Celebrates New York Community
One of Joseph Papp's most heartfelt goals was to create free Shakespeare productions where the diverse population of New York City could see a company of actors that looked like the diverse population of New York City. In the new Public Works musical production of The Tempest, the Delecorte stage not only explodes with the rich visual tapestry of the residents of our five boroughs, the music they sing and dance to takes us on a tour of the city's symphony of sounds.
Inspired by a 1916 adaptation of Shakespeare's magical fantasy of revenge and forgiveness that was staged with a small company of professional actors and 1,500 amateurs from community-based organizations and presented in New York City College's stadium, director Lear deBessonet (who is also the director of Public Works) has created a joyful evening utilizing the talents of over 200 performers, only six of whom are Equity actors.
The rest of the company includes clients of five of the city's social service organizations, artists from six local performing arts groups and, believe it or not, three members of the NYC Taxi Workers Alliance.
In the center of this whirlwind of cultures is Broadway favorite Norm Lewis, whose gloriously mellow baritone vocals and seemingly effortless grandeur are put to splendid use as Prospero, the disposed Duke of Milan who was exiled off to sea by his ambitious brother and his royal accomplices.
Landing on an enchanted island populated by invisible spirits, Prospero, having learned the secrets of magic and sorcery, rules the land for a dozen years before arranging for a great storm to shipwreck a boat full of his betrayers and have them all wash ashore onto his new home, where he plans to play with their minds a bit before confronting them.
Todd Almond, who winningly portrays Prospero's spirit-slave Ariel like a snarky pop star, also wrote the production's music and lyrics, much of which is performed by members of The Fortune Society, The Brownsville Recreation Center, The Children's Aid Society, Dreamyard and Domestic Workers United; a multi-ethnic community of men, women and children representing the island's invisible inhabitants. They sing a catchy collection of rock, pop, Latin, gospel and classical choral, while enthusiastically dancing to Chase Brock's streetwise choreography and dressed by Paul Carey in eye-popping splashes of color.
Adding to the pageantry are the Kaoru Watanabe Taiko Ensemble (whose powerful drumming supplies the tempest's thunder), The Middle Church Jerriese Johnson Gospel Choir, The Raya Brass Band (specializing in Eastern European folk), teenage hip-hop dancers from Generation, kids from Ballet Tech and lively folk dancers from The Calpulli Mexican Dance Company. As additional spirits helping to haunt the unwelcome visitors, most of these groups perform to their own music and choreography.
The young romantic pair, Prospero's daughter Miranda and her shipwrecked beau Ferdinand (only the third male she's ever seen), are sweetly played by community actors Atiya Taylor and Xavier Pacheco and well-sung by their counterparts Brianna Cabrera and Kenneth Bailey.
Carson Elrod grovels and growls fearfully as the enslaved Caliban and Jacob Ming-Trent and Jeff Hiller offer well-oiled goofiness as inebriated clowns Stephano and Trinculo. Tony-winner Laura Benanti displays lovely soprano vocals in a glimmering gown, playing a condensed version of Shakespeare's Iris, Ceres and Juno, simply named Goddess.
With so many musical moments, the original text is whittled down quite a bit, with uncredited contemporary lines scripted for Ariel, allowing his flippancy to contrast with Prospero's dignified eloquence. But this is a musical built on community festivity more than Elizabethan literature and deBessonet's company does a smashing job of it.
It's unfortunate that such a large venture can last for only a limited run of three performances, but hopefully this premiere Public Works production will inspire further collaborative efforts between professionals and ambitious amateurs in boisterous celebrations of inclusivity.