Three years ago, composer Michael Friedman and writer-director Alex Timbers took a sly po-mo approach to 19th-century American history in the delightfully daffy emo-rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Now the pair reteams for a similarly contemporary musical reworking of one of the Bard’s early comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost (playing in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater through Aug. 18 as part of the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park). And the result is a silly summertime confection as tasty and ephemeral as cotton candy.
In this 100-minute, intermission-less retelling, the King of Navarre (Daniel Breaker) and three of his pals are postgrad members of a collegiate secret society who pledge to foreswear all distractions for three years of serious academic study. Thus, they file to center stage to pack away a six-pack of beer, a bong, an Xbox, and condoms before the king’s buddy Berowne (Colin Donnell, a full-voiced Everyguy) breaks into one of Friedman’s catchier new tunes, ”Young Men,” lamenting the idea that they might squander their youth poring over Plato and Derrida: ”Don’t make me be serious already. Don’t make me be thirty already!”
Luckily, the fellows’ fortress of scholarly solitude is soon breached by the Princess of France (a delightful Patti Murin) and her three courtiers, who each have designs on one of the would-be academics. Timbers doesn’t have to dig very deep to find a modern conceit for Murin’s princess: She’s a hair-flipping, Valley gal straight out of Legally Blonde, one who bristles when a local identifies her as the chief woman since, as he tells her, ”You are the thickest here.” (Insulted, she quickly dumps the bag of cheese puffs in her hand onto one of her girlfriends.)
As with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Timbers and Friedman write like antic Ivy League parodists, kings of the Dramat, studding the Bard’s narrative with pop culture references, meta-jokes, and sight gags that can occasionally seem more silly than apt. Why else would the king and his men disguise themselves as turtleneck-wearing East German performance artists? And why should lower-class messenger Costard (Charlie Pollock) appear as a Hawaiian-shirt-clad descendant of Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High? In one of the show’s better self-referential bits, Costard breaks out in a down-with-the-1-percent song called ”Rich People” that includes the line: ”And now they’re taking stuff away from you and me. / They pay for better seats at plays that should be free.”
Timbers and Friedman are never less than clever, even introducing one number about romantic miscommunication as ”Exhibit A: A subtextual demonstration of heterosexual flirtation.” But sometimes they seem to be shooting sustainable, farm-raised tilapia in a barrel hand-crafted by artisan coopers somewhere in Greenpoint. At other times, they push the broad humor too far — there’s too much time spent with Armado (Caesar Samayoa), a scantily clad and heavily accented Spaniard who pursues a country wench named Jaquenetta (the radiant Rebecca Naomi Jones).
And yet there’s a generous expansiveness to this Love’s Labour’s Lost, nimbly staged by Timbers as a true ensemble piece. Instead of presenting Jaquenetta as the mere object of Armado’s pursuit — she has only 13 lines in Shakespeare’s play — here she gets a song of her own, the sultry torch song ”Love’s a Gun” that is one of the standouts of Friedman’s infectious new score. And Jones, most recently seen in Off Broadway’s Murder Ballad, belts the number with smoky intensity.
In her third verse, Jaquenetta bursts through the fourth wall of the show’s theatricality, comparing love to a play that ”all seems predetermined / like your programmed to obey / And if you’re lucky you get married to someone you hardly know.” But the song doesn’t end on the expected happily-ever-after, nor does this comedy tie up neatly with a stageful of wedding bows. Timbers and Friedman have something trickier in mind, as Jones sings: ”Then applause / Then no one tells you what to say / It always ends this way.” We are left on our own, chasing romance without a script, but with only the happy memories of a literate and loony version of Love’s Labour’s Lost. A?