BWW Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at The Keegan Theatre
Even if you're not familiar with As You Like It, you've likely heard references to two of its famous monologues: Jaques' famous "All the world's a stage" speech, and Rosalind's beautiful commentary:
No sooner met but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved; no sooner loved but they sighed; no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason; no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy; and in these degrees have they made a pair of stairs to marriage...
For those whose Shakespeare is rusty, a quick recap: Duke Frederick has usurped his older brother, Duke Senior, and forced his brother into exile in the Forest of Arden. Duke Senior's daughter, Rosalind, stayed behind at court with her cousin and close companion, Celia, but is soon banished by her power-crazed uncle. The two women disguise themselves - Rosalind as a poor young man, Celia as his sister - and flee to Arden with the help of the fool, Touchstone. Meanwhile, Orlando, the youngest son of the late Sir Rowland de Boys who fell for Rosalind when they briefly met at court, is forced to flee his home ahead of his vengeful older brother's attempts to kill him. Orlando joins Duke Senior's band in the woods, and writes (bad) love poems for Rosalind on the trees. Rosalind, still disguised as a man, befriends Orlando and helps "cure" him of his love by pretending to be Rosalind. Along the way, Phebe, who scorns her suitor, Silvius, falls for Rosalind's disguise, and Touchstone falls for the shepherdess, Audrey; Orlando's brother, Oliver, seeks them out and falls for Celia. The play ends with Rosalind revealing herself, a quadruple wedding, and a contrite Duke Frederick returning power to Duke Senior.
Keegan's production, though, is not a traditional Shakespearean play, but instead the DC-area premiere of the musical version of the show, written by co-adapters Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery as a commission for The Public Theatre in 2017. Taub and Woolery's musical version replaces some of the dialogue with songs, including Jaques' monologue, which is the basis of the charming opening song, "All The World's a Stage." The songs themselves are a mixed bag, but performed well. It should be noted, though, that their use of modern language (including references to texting, colloquialisms, and titles using "U") is a little disconcerting at times, particularly when paired with Jeanette Christensen's 70s-style costuming, which made me anticipate a Godspell-like split between 70s music and the Shakespearean text. The actual result is far more jumbled, existing across and outside of time.
However, Keegan's talented cast is well-suited for this performance: Caroline Dubberly (Jaques), Kevin Thorne II (Orlando), Linda Bard (Celia), and Daniel Glenn Wesbrook (Ensemble) pull double-duty as members of both the cast and the pit orchestra. Debora Crabbe shines as Rosalind, the daughter of the exiled duke who disguises herself as a man to flee with her cousin, Celia (played by the delightful Linda Bard). Crabbe's charisma carries the show, and her voice elevates Taub and Woolery's songs - her recurring solo, "Rosalind, Be Merry" was one of the standout numbers. I wish she'd been given the final monologue from the original play, if only to give her a little bit more time center-stage. Dubberly also gave a noteworthy performance as the melancholy Jaques, who dilutes the show's saccharinity with a skillful balance of curiosity and cynicism. Omar D. Cruz balances the nefarious Oliver with his position as fight captain (a hefty role since the opening of the show involves a wrestling match), and ensemble member Jennifer J. Hopkins wonderfully doubles as the dance captain.
Unfortunately, the cast's talent chafes a little against the material, and that may be why some parts of the show don't fully land. Some of the songs are on the weaker side, and the cast is forced to either hold back (as felt the case for Thorne's Orlando) or risk appearing to over-perform; the dancers in Orlando's ballad, "Will U Be My Bride" felt as though they were too skilled and enthusiastic for a lackluster number reflecting Orlando's bad poetry. It was difficult to appreciate Bianca Lipford's Phoebe and Caroline Wolfson's Silvia since most of their relationship centered around the reprise of the song, "You Phoebe Me," based on a single line in the play that has been unnecessarily drawn into a full song that is mostly the repetition of that line. Which is a shame, truthfully, since Keegan's decision to gender-swap some of the characters and make two of the four main couples same-sex was actually a lovely artistic choice.
Additional recognition should be noted for Matthew Keenan's immersive set, which is impressive and perfectly captures the whimsical tone. Co-Directors Cara Gabriel and Josh Sticklin and musical director Tiffany Underwood Holmes also deserve credit for keeping the show relatively tight - although there are a lot of moving pieces and characters, the show felt well-paced and hit the ideal level of controlled chaos.
Overall, Keegan Theatre's musical rendition of As You Like It is whimsical and fun, with some light social commentary of love and acceptance. Despite some rough edges, the production is an enjoyable experience.
Keegan Theatre's production of As You Like It runs through December 2nd. Runtime is 90 minutes with no intermission.
Photo Credit: Cameron Whitman; featuring Kevin Thorne & Debora Crabbe, with Linda Bard