Pedantic ex-professor of English that I am, it is not surprising that I prefer my Shakespeare straight. That said, tampering with Will’s work has been a tradition almost from the start, so the idea of musicalizing the bard is not exactly novel.
If ‘musicalization’ is a must, my own preference would be for Mendelssohn or Duke Ellington, and if you’re going to put it on the musical comedy stage, I’d go with something like Kiss Me Kate. Of course, if your idea is to add some music and a modern touch or two to the great poet’s basic plot, I guess Love’s Labour’s Lost, like Two Gentlemen From Verona, clearly not Shakespeare at the top of his game, is a less offensive choice than let’s say King Lear.
Still, it is not surprising that the Public Theater’s production of Alex Timber’s adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost with songs by Michael Friedman met with a rather mixed critical reception back in the summer of 2013. If you are going to mess with an icon, even Shakespeare’s lesser work, you have to be prepared for criticism. His fairly silly plot dealing with young love first in denial, then in heat is material that could be right for the musical stage in the right hands. While there is much that works well in the adaptation, for the most part its music is uneven, and presumably it is the music that is, at least in this production, its reason for being.
Certainly there are some clever lyrics, like the ironic reference to original uncut Elizabethan plays in the “Prologue” or the list of books they are not going to read in “Young Men,” but the lyrics also have their share of jokey groaners as in “I Love Cats.”
Of course, although Friedman’s pop-rock settings for Shakespeare’s actual language – as in “The King’s Sonnet” and his arrangement of “Longaville’s Sonnet,” which seems to channel A Chorus Line –might seem a bit incongruous, the words are the Bard’s own.
On the other hand the comic setting for “Dumaine’s Sonnet” seems more appropriate, while the “The Owl and the Cuckoo” has an almost Renaissance fugal vibe.
Certainly the best known tune in the show is the borrowing of the Mr. Big hit “To Be With You.” The ladies’ first number, “Hey Boys,” and the later “It’s Not a Good Idea” are pleasant pieces. “Love’s a Gun,” a power ballad sung with style by Rebecca Naomi Jones, is the kind of song one would expect from a New York musical, and does the job effectively. One would hope for more.
This Original Cast Recording of the production is available now for digital download and due out on CD on July 8 from Ghostlight Records. Besides Jones, the large cast, talented singers all, includes Daniel Breaker, Colin Donnell, Patti Murin, and Maria Thayer.