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BWW Review: Shaina Taub's Score Highlights Public Works' Colorful and Lively TWELFTH NIGHT


For the past three years some of New York's most joyous theatrical celebrations have graced the city as the first September chill started to pervade Central Park's Delecorte, when The Public Theater's Public Works program assembled casts of over 200 strong to saturate a classic text with the flavor of the five boroughs.

BWW Review: Shaina Taub's Score Highlights Public Works' Colorful and Lively TWELFTH NIGHT
Nikki M. James, Jose Llana, Shaina Taub
and members of New York Deaf Theatre
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

The creation of director Lear deBessonet, who conceived and mounted each previous production with a New York soundscape score by Todd Almond, Public Works only utilizes a handful of Equity actors. The rest of the company is made up of clients and employees of the city's social service organizations, with cameo appearances written for local performing arts organizations.

After presenting their versions of THE TEMPEST, THE ODYSSEY and THE WINTER'S TALE, deBessonet and Almond have this year passed the creative duties over to director Kwame Kwei-Armah and composer/lyricist Shaina Taub who have conceived a colorful and lively adaptation of Shakespeare's TWELFTH NIGHT that, while continuing with the series' emphasis on pageantry over detailed dramatics, makes a sharp turn into rowdy musical comedy.

If scenic designer David Zinn's semi-surreal version of the play's Illyria setting suggests a Magritte vision of New Orleans, the notion is confirmed by the opening jazz funeral led by the Jambalaya Brass Band, which segues into several catchy choruses of "Play On." Though Taub's rousing score focuses on jazz, R&B and funk, it cleverly diverts into barrelhouse and vaudeville, displaying sharp rhymes and fun imagery throughout.

The composer/lyricist is also the orchestrator and vocal arranger and leads the band onstage while acerbically entertaining as the jester, Feste, often narrating the plot along with a glimmering vocal ensemble of gossips known as the Illyriettes, a sort of Motown version of THE MUSIC MAN's Pick-a-Little Ladies.

Nikki M. James plays a sweet and resourceful Viola, who is shipwrecked onto a strange shore and mistakenly believes that her twin brother Sebastian (Troy Burton) has drowned.

Disguised as a boy named Cesario so she may travel safely (a point on which Taub expands upon in a solo where Viola notices the different ways people have been treating her), she takes employment with Duke Orsino (Jose Llana as a lovesick dreamboat), who pines for the disinterested Countess Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich).

As Viola develops romantic feelings for Orsino, Olivia is taken with Cesario, a matter that complicates when Sebastian, who thinks that his sister has drowned, enters the mix.

BWW Review: Shaina Taub's Score Highlights Public Works' Colorful and Lively TWELFTH NIGHT
Andrew Kober (center), members of
The Love Show (front) and Company
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

The show-stopping material is handed to Andrew Kober, who plays Olivia's stuffy servant Malvolio, who falls victim to a prank by the maid Maria (Lori Brown-Niang) and nobles Sir Toby Belch (a sassy Jacob Ming-Trent) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (goofy Daniel Hall) and believes that his lady has fallen for him.

Kober displays great showmanship as he celebrates his good fortune in a terrific song and dance turn (featuring can-can dancers of The Love Show) and later, realizing he's been wronged, is hilariously self-righteous in a comic solo confirming his belief in his own greatness.

Members of the New York Deaf Theatre are featured in a ballad about unspoken feelings and a duel scene is enhanced by the choreographed maneuvers of the Ziranmen Kungfu Wushu Training Center, accompanied by percussion from the Cobu drum ensemble. When a very important message is needed to be delivered, the task is performed by Lorenzo Hudson of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

While the previous three Public Works Productions have all been marvelous, TWELFTH NIGHT, mostly on the strength of Taub's exceptional score, is the first to show real potential as a Broadway production. The company would need to be whittled down and the text would need to be beefed up, but it seems that The Public Theater's knack for developing quality musicals, rooted in HAIR and A CHORUS LINE and more recently represented by FUN HOME and HAMILTON, has struck again.

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From This Author Michael Dale