In the mock-solemn opening scene of Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman’s new musical, “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (which plays at the Public’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park through August 18th), the King (Daniel Breaker) and his three lordly companions swear off women and the outside world, vowing to spend the next three years studying great literature, including “Elizabethan plays in their original form without the addition of completely unnecessary songs.” It is a pity for Mr. Timbers (who adapted the book and directed) and Mr. Friedman (who wrote the songs) that this bit of barely funny self-reference (of which there are many more to follow) turns out to be so accurate—“Unnecessary” is the perfect word for what they have done to the work of the Bard.
In this case, of course, “King” is not actually a noble title. This version of “Lost” is set in the present day, and the “King of Navarre” is actually the president of the Secret Society of Navarre on the grounds of an unnamed New England university, and his “lords” are the former members. The four have returned for their five-year college reunion, and evidently intend to live in their old clubhouse for the next three years. (Someone should remind the King to check state zoning laws to confirm that this is actually legal.) But their plans are interrupted when the “Princess” of France (Patti Murin) and her ladies-in-waiting—in this case, former college flings of the four gentlemen of Navarre, presumably also attending the reunion—arrive to dispute a loan from their King un-repaid by the King of Navarre. (And no, I’m not sure what this is supposed to equate to in present-day New England.)
Suffice it to say that the premise, though magnificently brought to life by scenic designer John Lee Beatty (who has designed a literally perfect set that he should win some kind of lifetime achievement award for) is lacking. Only the fact that William Shakespeare’s densely intricate prose has been left (mostly) intact saves it from being utterly confusing. Mr. Friedman’s 22 songs, which appear to have been crammed into the 1 hour 40 minute running time with a crowbar, rarely help matters. They’re loud and occasionally fun, but the lyrics are almost brutally bad, zipping along with such thoughtless speed that it seems they frequently forget to rhyme. Further, they often seem to have very little to say. Mr. Friedman’s proletariat, 99-percenter fight song, “Rich People,” has no bite or sting like Cole Porter’s attempt at the genre, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” or Yip Harburg’s, “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich.” There is no subtlety in Mr. Friedman’s lyrics, which is a shame, because he comes very close to being hugely entertaining on several occasions. Only one of his songs, a surprising ode to cats by the humble servant Moth, comes close to being funny. And even that seems to come out of nowhere, having no place in the story but to distract from the fact that this adaptation doesn’t make much sense.
But luckily, William Shakespeare, who is a far superior lyricist, also contributed to this production, and the numbers wherein Shakespeare’s rhyming prose is substituted for lyrics are absolutely fantastic. The most triumphant sequence in the show, in which the four men overhear each other declaring their love for their respective ladies, is staged with just the right amount of panache, giving Shakespeare’s pentameter room to shine. This sequence, too, is the collision point for the greatest strengths of all of the contributors. Here, Mr. Friedman’s score seems perfectly at home, Mr. Timbers’ staging is pulled off to a T, choreographer Danny Mefford presents four unique numbers with aplomb, and that rarest of occurrences takes place before our eyes—an early Shakespeare comedy, with little or no modern identifiableness, is gloriously funny.
It’s a pity there aren’t more of these moments, not just for our sake, but for that of the cast, which is truly this show’s high point. The 18-person company is flawlessly cast and enormously talented. The members of the Secret Society are standouts—Mr. Breaker, who is funny as always and rocks out successfully to the better parts of Mr. Friedman’s score; Colin Donnell belts excellently as Berowne, even if he is given a bit too much room to pout as if starring in an Abercrombie commercial; and Bryce Pinkham and Lucas Near-Verburugghe are so good as Longaville and Dumaine that I was almost shocked their roles were so reduced by Mr. Timbers.
Good female roles are tough to come by in this production (they’re all two-dimensional, catty airheads)—a missed opportunity, since the production has gotten hold of Ms. Murin to play the Princess (she’s a true talent, and does the best she can with what she’s got) and Maria Thayer to play Rosaline. As anyone who’s seen “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” can testify, Ms. Thayer is a terrific comic actress who is, regretfully, under-utilized here. The creative team claims they’ve tried to expand the female roles from Shakespeare’s original text, but in fact they seem smaller in this adapted version, their motivation less comprehensible, especially when we are forced to assume facts about their respective relationships with the Navarreans of which we are never adequately made aware.
Meanwhile, shoring up the show’s comedic center are the great SNL alum Rachel Dratch and the character actor Jeff Hiller as resident pseudo-intellectuals Holofernes and Nathaniel, who in this version are professors at the unnamed school. Their back-and-forth is a rare treat unchanged by the edits of Timbers and Friedman. Not as funny but putting a lot of effort into it is Caesar Samayoa as the Spaniard Armado, who would be much funnier if most of his lovesick rants had not been replaced by unfunny and—you guessed it—unnecessary songs.
Yes, these actors are held back by edits too numerous to name. One that’s not easy to ignore is the elimination of the very funny Nine Worthies scene that ends the fifth act, replaced by a brash, badly written number that involves an entire marching band stomping onto the stage. But the most nonsensical is a moment late in the show, after the four male leads have dressed up as East German performance artists as a joke on their loves. (In the original, they dressed as Russians, which would have been much funnier.) As the Princess and her ladies make for the exit, disgusted by the escapades of the men, Berowne calls for them to stop. And then—and I’m not kidding here—the four literally sing the 1991 Mr. Big song “To Be With You” to get them to stay. Don’t ask me how they got the rights. Don’t ask me why this surreal moment was included at all. But the seductive, ridiculous dances of the four men during the song got me thinking about a metaphor that represents this show perfectly.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Musical” is like a boy band. Most of the time, it’s annoying and, yes, unnecessary, clogging up the musical landscape with drivel you never wanted to hear in the first place. If they ever write a good song, it’s purely by accident. Some of the members may be talented, but it’s difficult to tell through the cloud of fakery and the various tank tops they change into over the course of a performance. The question is, do you want them to be talented, to justify the fact that they became popular in the first place? Or would you prefer that they just go away? Sometimes the music is better if the band breaks up and the bandmates go solo.