This is not necessarily a good thing.
Oh, there's plenty to like about the new tuner that just opened at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and is scheduled to run through the end of the week. And the sheer joy it takes in being just plain different is smack at the top of the list. But it's impossible to shake the feeling while watching this spit-polished production that the show is this only because it doesn't know how to be anything else.
The show's highest and lowest points come from the same two places: Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman. These Off-Broadway theatrical masterminds joined forces beginning in 2009 to create Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a rollicking emo interpretation of the controversial seventh president of the United States. It managed only a brief Broadway run, but filtering its classic subject through contemporary culture overall worked for librettist-director Timbers and composer Friedman, so it's no surprise that they decided to team up again and fulfill those same roles here.
It's not difficult to understand what attracted them to William Shakespeare's bizarrely off-kilter anti-romantic comedy of the same title. Though jubilantly joyful, it's laced with a melancholy that separates it from The Bard's goofier writings, and presents certain tonal challenges in its disquieting final scenes. It doesn't exist merely on one plane, and thus requires a creative team who will recognize and respect that, and devise clever solutions for dealing with the dilemma.
This means laying the groundwork early and adhering to it. The King of Navarre persuades his three compatriots, Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine, to abstain from earthly pleasures and devote their hearts, minds, and bodies strictly to study — a plan that falters almost immediately, when the Princess of France and her three attendants arrive on royal business and insinuate themselves into the men's hearts. On many levels, this suggests a more standard musical-comedy treatment, if a star-free one (though the pompous Spanish Armado could be a good fit for a headliner).
Standard, however, is not what Timbers and Friedman do. Though Timbers has recently made forays into more commercial fare (Here Lies Love, Peter and the Starcatcher), his most striking efforts were with Les Freres Corbusier, such as A Very Merry Children's Scientology Pageant, which set real children on the modern religion's shakier tenets to hilariously chilling effect. And Friedman, with [I Am] Nobody's Lunch, Gone Missing, and This Beautiful City (all for The Civilians), used a beautifully awkward show-biz musical sensibility to transform stodgy documentary theatre into something memorably fresh.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was just the right proof of concept, examining whether the celebrity of the early 19th century and the celebrity of the early 21st could genuinely mesh, and whether we'd learned anything in the intervening 200 years. It could be silly one moment and tragic the next because that's how history itself operates, and because Timbers and Friedman were writing the rules from scratch. Alas, neither applies to Love's Labour's Lost, which, despite a few adventurous bits of construction, is mostly conventional Shakespeare that possesses its own kind of timelessness. (Men who think they can take women off their minds and get things done are in for a rude awakening, and so on.)
The inconsistency mounts quickly. Leaving the dialogue largely Elizabethan while moving the action to the present day and rendering the lyrics in here-and-now American English, suggests that Timbers and Friedman were setting up barriers they could then smash. But they don't succeed at that because the play didn't need ironic clarification to begin with: They're forcing it to be something it never was, which gives Friedman's score nothing to either connect with or respond to. The relationship between the structural elements just plays as confused and confusing.
Friedman's songs are often delightful, from the testosterone-fueled "Young Men" opener to the energetic almost-finale, which finds the entire cast celebrating the opportunities life at precisely the wrong moment. But they interrupt, rather than deepen, the story and the characters, which doesn't leave Timbers's script (which has significantly cut down and simplified the original) much room to develop anything on its own. It's easy enough to enjoy the score and the book, but there's no real way to enjoy them together. With the help of John Lee Beatty’s handsome courtyard set, Love's Labour's Lost falls short of being anything more than a glitteringly attractive mess.
A few souring examples out of too many: The first scene, which mocks the notion of injecting songs into the play; the straining, subtlety-stripped "Did I Not Dance With You in Brabant," in which an indifferent Boyet (Andrew Durand) conducts a he-says-she-thinks song achingly similar to Frank Loesser's "Been a Long Day" without the charm or wit; a late confrontation, in which the four men unknowingly one-up each other with declarations of love for their women, which buries itself under every go-for-broke trick in the book (and Jennifer Moeller's bountiful, upscale costume plot), up to and including a desperate and impressively incongruous A Chorus Line parody, and still doesn't justify itself; Armado being tweaked into too puffed a buffoon to occupy the solid supporting position the role demands.
Caesar Samayoa gives that role his all and then some, and is grating in it for his troubles, but there's no way to take it down. Far better are the lovers: Daniel Breaker (King), Colin Donnell (Berowne), Bryce Pinkham (Longaville), Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Dumaine), Patti Murin (the Princess), Maria Thayer (Rosaline), Kimiko Glenn (Maria), and Audrey Lynn Weston (Katherine) prove a spunky, likable group who summon just the kind of daffy, infectious On the Town energy required. Donnell and Breaker strike the best balance between amorousness and amusement in their flashiest parts, but there's no weak link.
Scattered throughout are additional brilliant performances: from Charlie Pollock as Costard, Justin Levine as the cat-loving Moth, Rachel Dratch and Jeff Hiller as the nonsense-spouting academics Holofernes and Nathaniel, and Rebecca Naomi Jones as the base maid Jaquenetta. Jones, in particular, shines with an anger-tinged number comparing love (unfavorably) to a gun, a cup-and-ball game, a play, and a murder scene.
What does it have to with the show surrounding her? Nothing, of course. So even the fire Jones brings to her rendition fizzles out before it can reach you. That didn't happen with either Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or Two Gentlemen of Verona, the 1971 Shakespeare-pop fusion musical that reportedly inspired Timbers and Friedman here. But those shows knew what they were and what they wanted to be; because this one doesn't, it ends up not being little more than a labor lost.
Love's Labour's Lost