The new musical production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, based on Shakespeare’s play of the same title, has a sometimes-endearing, sometimes-exhausting kitchen-sink quality to it, particularly when it comes to the musical numbers.
There’s a comically graphic rap song (given to an increasingly disconcerted Caesar Samayoa’s charmingly naive would-be Latin lover, Armado).
There’s a tap number starring the previously almost invisible Longaville (Bryce Pinkham) which raises real questions about whether this guy could really be that into the girls.
And there’s a can-you-top-this party number just before the close that includes not just one of the cats from Cats but a high-school marching band far too large for any rational production of The Music Man.
But the most memorable number isn’t an original song at all. Right after failing to entertain their beloveds with an alienating East German dance number (East German? Did I somehow miss that the musical was set in 1985?), the men strip off their fake beards and black turtlenecks and Berowne (a hunky Colin Donnell) leads them in a boy band version of the early-’90s come-on song: “To Be With You“:
Hold on little girl
Show me what he’s done to you
Stand up little girl
A broken heart can’t be that bad
When it’s through, it’s through
Fate will twist the both of you
So come on baby come on over
Let me be the one to show you
I’m the one who wants to be with you
Deep inside I hope you feel it too
Waited on a line of greens and blues
Just to be the next to be with you
Build up your confidence
So you can be on top for once
wake up who cares about
Little boys that talk too much
I seen it all go down
Your game of love was all rained out
So come on baby, come on over
Let me be the one to hold you
Why be alone when we can be together baby
You can make my life worthwhile
And I can make you start to smile
It’s a well-conceived moment, and very effective. First of all, it’s a catchy song – the only one whose tune stuck with me after the show. Second, the move is exactly what the boys would do in the circumstances. Third, the song’s lyrics are keyed precisely to the pop-song pitch of Shakespeare’s frothiest romanic comedy.
But then, upon reflection, I realized something. In this version of the story, created by Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers (creators of the hip hit musical, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson), the boys and the girls have a history. The Princess (a head-Heather-ish blonde Patti Murin) had a fling with the King (Daniel Breaker) back in college (she says she was trying to annoy her father); Rosaline (Maria Thayer) was once involved with Berowne; and so on for Katherine (played as a stoner girl by Audrey Lynn Weston) and Maria (played as a clueless Japanese bubble-gum pop chick by Kimiko Glenn) and their once and future beaux.
Where Shakespeare wrote a story about the first experience of love, and its disorientations, in this version of the play the girls have had their hearts broken before. So these boys, newly touched by Cupid’s arrow, offer the girls their healing love. The problem is that the guy who broke the girl’s heart before is the same guy singing the come-on song about how his love will make her forget all about it.
I call this the “problem” but, of course, from another perspective the fact that these boys don’t get that it’s a problem is the “solution” to a dramatic problem – namely, how to make this story work for modern sensibilities. For the complete arc of the story to make sense, the girls have to be self-protective, the boys surprised by the seriousness of their ardor. More to the point, the death of the Princess’s father at the end of the play, and her demand that her suitor wait for her to finish her mourning, has to make sense. All of this adds up to a somewhat more mature group of lovers than it would have in Shakespeare’s day. Which, in turn, implies a sexual history.
And making the boys the ones who broke the girls’ hearts pushes the story into “comedy of remarriage” territory – where many of Shakespeare’s plays live, but not this one. Which strikes me as very promising. But having laid claim to this more-fertile territory, Timbers and Friedman decline to plant anything deep-rooted.
Based on my recollection (I don’t know Shakespeare’s play that well, having read it only once and seen only one production), this is pretty true to the Shakespeare. As in the original, the boys, originally determined to keep aloof from women, are soon behaving like romantic fools (in this case, romantic fools who tap-dance and croon in addition to writing sonnets). As in the original, the women are touched and amused, but not really impressed – they need evidence of something stronger than infatuation before they’ll formally reciprocate their love.
But in the context of a remarriage plot, there’s a bitter note under the love songs. Maturity plays out as accepting the inevitable – that we’ll fall in love and settle down, pretty much with who you’d expect (Murin sings almost exactly that in her “I suppose love you, too” song to Breaker) – more than (as in a proper remarriage plot) appreciating something previously unrecognized in the other (and in oneself). The closest we get to the latter is Rosaline’s recognition that Berowne is “just like me.” Which isn’t all that close.
The setup of Shakespeare’s play suggests obvious comparisons to teen sex comedies like “American Pie,” and this revision has a lot of fun with precisely that comparison. But it leaves the impression that we never really outgrow that phase, at least not when we’re in love. Love means never having to say you’re sorry for singing cheesy lyrics and wearing sequined outfits. What experience – what mature love would feel like – the girls are waiting for as they leave at the end is left unsaid.
Which brings me back to that cat. Unquestionably the most bizarre bit floating in this kitchen sink is an early number sung by Armado’s hanger-on, Moth (Justin Levine), about how he does indeed understand love. He loves cats – a love that starts out sounding juvenile, then disturbingly carnal, then (if possible) even more disturbingly carnivorous.
At the time, I found the bit bizarre – mildly amusing but really out of left field. But after a while, I wondered whether this wasn’t intended to sound yet another bitter undertone. I remembered that episode of “Mad Men” when Peggy is planning to shack up with her boyfriend, and her mother dismisses her (as is her wont) with a brutal bit of parental advice:
You’re lonely? Get a cat.
Love’s Labour’s Lost plays at the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park through August 18th.