Review: In a Blissful Musical ‘Twelfth Night’ in Central Park, Song Is Empathy

Review: In a Blissful Musical ‘Twelfth Night’ in Central Park, Song Is Empathy
Review: In a Blissful Musical ‘Twelfth Night’ in Central Park, Song Is Empathy

I saw the blue group, and it wasn’t easy to tell the pros from the novices. Everyone on stage, dressed for vacation play in Andrea Hood’s sunny costumes, just seemed so glad to be there, part of a shared process of extracting rhyme, reason and song out of life’s bewilderments. The audience, by the way, is invited and expected to tour the onstage Illyria, and chat with its citizens, before the show proper begins.

The sprint of a musical that follows is remarkably true to its source material, not only in plot but also in moral content. Ms. Taub and Mr. Kwei-Armah (the recently anointed artistic director of the Young Vic Theater in London) have extended the original play’s consideration of the ambiguities of identity to address an age in which the divisions between sexes and classes paradoxically feel both more porous and unbridgeable than ever.

The story once again finds the ingenious Viola (Ms. James) shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria, separated from her beloved mirror image of a twin brother, Sebastian (Troy Anthony), whom she believes lost at sea. She dresses herself as a pageboy to serve the narcissistic Orsino (played as a honey-voiced crooner by Ato Blankson-Wood), leading to a big, bright ball of confusion.

Much of Shakespeare’s spoken language is retained, but Ms. Taub’s songs are in different musical vernaculars — R&B ballads, plaintive guitar-based folk numbers and even jaunty music-hall turns. (Lorin Latarro did the spirited, something-for-everyone choreography.) Irresistibly tuneful, they also slyly illuminate the play’s investigations into love, cruelty and, above all, the mutable nature of self.

Disguise, as Ms. James’s exquisitely conceived Viola sings in the show’s centerpiece solo, is “a wicked blessing,” as she discovers that as a man, she is far “less invisible to the world” than she ever was a girl. “I’ve seen myself from both sides now,” she sings with a mixture of perplexity and awakening power. “Is it half of each bringing love my way?”

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