Review Roundup: Critics Weigh In On TWELFTH NIGHT in the Park

By: Jul. 31, 2018
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Twelfth Night

The Public Theater's production of Public Works' Twelfth Night, conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub, music and lyrics by Shaina Taub, Choreography by Lorin Latarro, and directed by Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah, opened tonight and will run through Sunday, August 19.

The complete Equity cast of Twelfth Night features Kim Blanck (Female Understudy), Ato Blankson-Wood (Orsino), Lori Brown-Niang (Maria), Troy Anthony (Sebastian), Nanya-Akuki Goodrich (Olivia), JW Guido (Featured Illyrian), Daniel Hall (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Shuler Hensley (Sir Toby Belch), Javier Ignacio (Male Understudy), Nikki M. James (Viola), Jonathan Jordan (Antonio), Andrew Kober (Malvolio), Patrick J. O'Hare(Fabian), and Shaina Taub (Feste). The Equity company is joined by two rotating ensembles of community members from all five boroughs who will perform together on the Delacorte stage in this enchanting comedy.

The Public Works community partner organizations are Brownsville Recreation Center(Brooklyn), Center for Family Life in Sunset Park (Brooklyn), DreamYard (Bronx), The Fortune Society (Queens), and Military Resilience Foundation (all boroughs), along with alumni partners Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education (Bronx), Children's Aid (all boroughs) and Domestic Workers United (all boroughs).

In celebration of five extraordinary years of Public Works, a Public Theater initiative that invites community members across New York to create ambitious works of participatory theater, Free Shakespeare in the Park presents a re-imagining of Public Works' 2016 musical adaptation of Twelfth Night for a full five-week run in Central Park. Professional artists and two rotating ensembles of community members from all five boroughs will perform together on the Delacorte stage in this enchanting comedy about Viola (Nikki M. James), a young heroine who washes up on the shores of Illyria, disguises herself as a man, is sent to court a countess, and falls in love with a Duke. Featuring music and lyrics by critically-acclaimed songwriterShaina Taub, this very special Twelfth Night is a unique partnership between two Public Theater programs that exemplify The Public's commitment to radical inclusion. Oskar Eustis, The Public's Artistic Director, and Kwame Kwei-Armah, incoming Artistic Director of London's Young Vic, helm this unforgettable musical about love in all its many disguises.

Let's see what the critics had to say!

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: I saw the blue group, and it wasn't easy to tell the pros from the novices. Everyone on stage, dressed for vacation play in Andrea Hood's sunny costumes, just seemed so glad to be there, part of a shared process of extracting rhyme, reason and song out of life's bewilderments. The audience, by the way, is invited and expected to tour the onstage Illyria, and chat with its citizens, before the show proper begins.

The sprint of a musical that follows is remarkably true to its source material, not only in plot but also in moral content. Ms. Taub and Mr. Kwei-Armah (the recently anointed artistic director of the Young Vic Theater in London) have extended the original play's consideration of the ambiguities of identity to address an age in which the divisions between sexes and classes paradoxically feel both more porous and unbridgeable than ever.

Nicole Serratore, Variety: Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub's musicalized "Twelfth Night" is the kind of outdoor summer theater that transcends bad weather. Even if the skies crackle with lightning and showers soak you in your seat (as happened to this critic), you'll still leave Central Park's Delacorte Theater beaming. The co-creators take Shakespeare's themes and wrap them in an ebullient package, making sure everything about this production - from the inclusive casting to the use of American Sign Language to the invitation to the audience to come mingle with the cast on stage at the start - says "welcome." With a score of catchy tunes and ardent performances, it's a happy marriage of a classic play with a contemporary execution.

Barbara Schuler, Newsday: Shakespeare's tale of shipwrecked twins washed up on the shores of Illyria, each assuming the other dead, gets an abridged telling here, and purists will likely quibble with some of the liberties taken. Everyone else will have a great time watching the antics as Viola (the delightful Nikki M. James) dresses in grief as her brother, setting in motion a tangle of misguided relationships, but finding herself in the process. "I feel so seen as a guy," she sings.

Matt Windman, amNY: Of the many productions of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" I have seen in recent years, this is by far the most bright and upbeat. The play's famous opening line of helpless melancholy - "If music be the food of love, play on" - has become the inspiration for a celebratory opening number, while the finale ("Eyes of Another") promotes empathy and compassion.

Allison Adato, Entertainment Weekly: It's a fitting prelude to this kitchen-sink telling of the gender-crossed, mistaken-identity comedy that joyfully mixes theater amateurs with pros and references everything from New Orleans jazz funerals to Beyoncé hits to Fortnite dances. Co-directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Oskar Eustis (artistic directors, respectively, of London's Young Vic and New York's Public Theater), this Twelfth Night is a 90-minute sprint that tosses out a lot of 17th-century verse in favor of contemporary lyrics. At times that does give the impression of two shows sewn, artfully if not seamlessly, together: one a jaunt through Shakespeare's text, the other a musical retelling.

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: Directed by Public honcho Oskar Eustis-assuming the reins from Kwei-Armah, who steered a version of it in 2016-this Twelfth Night is as fast as it is loose: It has been trimmed to a fleet 90 minutes, including the many musical numbers. Not very much of Shakespeare's language remains, but the storytelling is lean and clear. In addition to Taub, who has a knockout voice, a few other seasoned performers anchor the cast adeptly

Steven Suskin, New York Stage Review: The cast of about two dozen is augmented by the community contingent, drawn from a wide array of groups-from tots to veterans-and divided into two alternating 50-person casts. We saw the "Red Ensemble," and you'd have to imagine that the "Blue Ensemble" is just as delightful.

All of which would be beside the point if this Twelfth Night did not deliver as a top-grade musical show. Much of the credit belongs to Taub, who not only wrote the score but is presumably responsible for adapting the Shakespearean text as well. The songs are impressive, canny, and mighty friendly; I suppose that comparisons to a long-ago Shakespeare in the Park confection, John Guare and Galt MacDermot's Two Gentlemen of Verona, are in order. As for Taub-on the page, on the stage, and otherwise plugging away in the pit-she is a marvel and will surely be swept up to any heights she aspires to. While comparisons of this sort are not in order, she demonstrates the type of creatively charismatic presence of that fellow at the center of a more recent Public musical, Hamilton.

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