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Like You Like It

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If nostalgia arrives in 20-year cycles, that means we can all look forward to a spate of shows celebrating the 1980s in all their pastel-colored, self-absorbed glory. But let us all hope that, when those shows arrive, they turn out a bit better than Sammy Buck and Daniel S. Acquisto's Like You Like It, now playing at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

This musical updating of William Shakespeare's classic comedy As You Like It doesn't suffer from blandness as much as predictability; giving the situations of Shakespeare's forlorn city dwellers, who convene for various reasons in the pastoral Forest of Arden to further confuse and eventually unravel their various romantic entanglements, to high school students is hardly a stretch. And, from there, it doesn't take much dramatic maneuvering to impose 1980s teen-film values on the kids and send up Elizabethan drama and the adolescent angst movie genre all at once.

The result is a somewhat stilted combination of As You Like It, The Breakfast Club, and Just One of the Guys. The last named is particularly appropriate, given As You Like It's heavy reliance on cross-dressing, disguises, and other sorts of physical misdirection to make sure that everything will be as convoluted as possible en route to the happy ending. Buck's book changes a number of details, but remains essentially faithful to this idea.

Composer Acquisto also gleefully sends up the era's music, and the tunes he's devised incorporate various rock, punk, and pop styles with an over-abundance of ridiculously flashy synthesizer riffs that could not possibly be more period appropriate. (The music director is Gillian Berkowitz.) Acquisto and Buck (also the show's lyricist) even do a decent enough job of tying in their '80s tributes to the characters, providing the obligatory angsty duets, hard-pounding group numbers, and throaty wails just as Buck's script requires them.

But while Buck finds some decent humor in his character names - my favorite was Audrey Shepherd (she's given an ideal spoiled-girl rendition by Joanna Young) - insight and cleverness are in otherwise short supply. Most of what substance and dramatic weight As You Like It has have been eviscerated in this adaptation; these problems are simply less compellingly theatrical when recast as high-schoolers for whom none of this is really out of the ordinary. (And, when it's not really bursting with style or originality, it's not particularly satisfying to watch.)

Among the problems: The original play's interweaving subplots and social and sexual commentary are simplified almost to non-existence here, making the central love story - between Rosalind (Rebecca Bellingham) and Orlando (Charlie Mechling) extremely conventional and only intermittently interesting. The character of Orlando's brother Oliver, so vital to jump-starting the original play's plot, is reconceived here as the school's truant officer, who threatens the students to mask his own insecurities, but is otherwise never threatening. His major role in the show is to serve as the centerpiece of a second-act makeover montage, and actor Colby Foytik does a good Don Johnson impression following his transformation.

The best of Buck's innovations involve Phil and Sylvie (Joshua Park and Monica Yudovich), two students who carry on an on-again-off-again relationship of unspoken feelings through most of the play. Philip's attraction toward Rosalind - who's dressed as a male at the time - provides a bit of an examination of sexual identity that seems not at all out of place in a story of this nature. More of these original touches could only help; director Jen Bender and choreographer Stephen Nachamie do a fine job of recreating the '80s in look and spirit, but can't compensate for the often banal writing.

Of the performers, only Michele Ragusa - as the lead singer of the Seven Stages of Man, the band that narrates the story - makes much of an impression, with a dynamic voice and comic timing that allow her to stand apart from the other talented, if unexceptional, performers. The best of the rest is the sharp and funny Young, though Park derives some nice moments from his character's confusion, and Tara Sands plays the role of material girl Celia Duke to the hilt. The actors are all garishly (but attractively) costumed by Vanessa Leuck in a range of Technicolor '80s fashions.

But while those clothes contribute a surprising amount to what success the show has at evoking the bygone decade, this adaptation is never as bright and funny as it aspires to be. At least the concept itself is a potentially winning one, and definitely workable; as a statement of purpose, "As You Like It set in 1985" is great place to start, but Like You Like It never takes that idea much farther.

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New York Musical Theatre Festival
Like You Like It
Through October 2
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with one intermission
Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101