Rep’s Beatles’ Flavored Bard a Blast

Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ with Beatles songs creates funny frothy fun.

By - Feb 21st, 2022 04:59 pm
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents As You Like It in the Quadracci Powerhouse February 15 – March 20, 2022. Pictured: The cast of As You Like It. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents As You Like It in the Quadracci Powerhouse February 15 – March 20, 2022. Pictured: The cast of As You Like It. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

If you could have peeked under the vaccine masks at the Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Playhouse opening night, you would have found patrons grinning from ear to ear and sometimes laughing out loud as never expected at a Shakespeare comedy, even one of his best.

As You Like It is almost swallowed up at the start, but then gets its moments as woodland lovers surround cross-dressing Rosalind. The early grins most likely come from the cultural freedom of two dozen Beatles songs inserted lovingly into the story (amazing how well we know them six decades later). At planned moments, the audience even gets to chime in the lyrics as the singers pretend to fumble. It is amazing how the tunes can reflect directly or with sophisticated twists on the bard’s maneuvers.

Now there is no denying that this theatrical concept has been tested, proven and packaged since 2018 by invited director/adapter Daryl Cloran and British Columbia’s Bard on the Beach Festival. They have performed it several times in the U.S. and Canada.

But the Rep deserves vast credit not just for recognizing its charm, but also importing a large cast (from Chicago and both coasts) precisely skilled and practiced in singing the well-known harmonies – and also Shakespeare trained. That means they can drive the humor into the higher regions of impertinent camp, as the best parodies and tributes to the bard can do.

Where Shakespeare had young lovers meet, this production has them stare at each other in shocked love as a prelude to dialogue and song. Where Rosalind speaks in Shakespearean prose or blank verse, it is built upon by the squeals we associate with Beatles legend. When Touchstone woos his Audrey, they top the burlesque antics with a Beatles ballad.

It’s not just fun attached to all this but genuine theatrical pleasure. I’m guessing that many will hate to see this run end March 20.

The move of the plot to the swinging 1960s not only frees costumer Carmen Alatorre, scenic designer Pam Johnson and assorted technical artists to create a non-stop world of hippie dress and dance steps. It allows a VW bus to deliver the forest lords and their friendly singing hippie duke (played by Don Noble, the same actor who plays the evil brother as a Vince McMahon wrestling boss wannabee who banished the nice duke).

But first we get the court – except this court is a wrestling ring (come early for some pre-show matches) where Touchstone (Adam Wesley Brown) starts his fabulous verbal clowning as a wrestling announcer with mike, adding comic asides as the cast demonstrates advance tumbling and body-slam skills off the ropes, led by Marquis Wood as the muscular Charles the Wrestler.

All traditional Shakespeare wraps are off. The cast even jokes aloud that they cluster in secret because Shakespeare told them to. The band upstage is usually decked out in fours like the Beatles (and I suspect it was deliberate that the actor dressed as spectacled John Lennon sings the famous song Paul McCartney wrote, “Let It Be”) with some actors actually playing instruments and others playing air-guitar, all of which adds real elements to prerecorded instruments.

Apologies if I miss some names since the entire cast seems musically proficient, but the players onstage are led by keyboardist and music supervisor (and Silvius) Michael Dashefsky, bassist and occasional trombonist (and Amiens) Kurt Schweitz, frequent drummer (and Jacques de Boys) Kieran McCabe, Wood again, Morgan Matthew Bernhard (who will be replaced in this fast-moving company Feb. 20) and Nancy Voigts (Corin).

As Orlando, who wins his wrestling match and woos Rosalind with poems pinned to trees, Justin Gregory Lopez appealingly pines in physical romps around the floor, shows tenor power in the baritone range and wins fans with his overblown love-sick antics.

He is hardly alone in appeal. Lizzy Brooks as Celia and Savannah L. Jackson as Rosalind play Shakespeare like intimate girl friends in a Motown routine, mocking everyone else and singing powerfully besides. (It may not be the full depths of the roles, but they are exemplary in this version.)

In fright wig, Trish Lindström treats melancholy Jaques (with that Seven Ages of Man speech) as an Andy Warhol refugee while Tony Carter ignores what a bad brother Oliver is in the first half to overwoo a disguised Celia in the second act. Sophie Murk as Audrey mines laughs by using Beatles music to show her schizoid side.

After intermission the show has some weaker spots as the charm of the concept wears thinner. But the production knows how to rescue itself, for this is finally where Shakespeare pays off in lover interaction, the clearest poetry and one-upsmanship. Would they dare end this production with “All You Need Is Love”? Yeah, yeah, yeah.

The Rep is undergoing a sea change from focusing, repertory-like, on the best resident actors Milwaukee has to offer (though even here local favorite Norman Moses as Adam shows his acting chops) to bringing in the best it can afford from New York, California and regional theater to fill whatever production it determines to do. As You Like It has audience pleasure in mind, to be sure, but marks how a different production philosophy has emerged under artistic director Mark Clements.

As You Like It Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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