What do Shakespeare and an ‘80s boy band have in common? In a modern musical production of Shakespeare’s woodsy romance “As You Like It,” quite a lot actually.
Singer-songwriter Shaina Taub’s inventive production — which came out of the Public Theatre’s Public Works Division to critical acclaim in 2017 — now welcomes audiences to the enchanting mystical forest of Arden, at the Madison Theatre, on the Molloy University campus.
The show, which opened last weekend and runs through Nov. 5, is an opportunity for the students at Molloy’s renowned Cap21 Musical Theatre Conservatory to shine. With its large cast of 40 actors, it’s a challenging endeavor, but one that director Chris O’Connor — chairman of Cap21 — was ready to take on, assisted by a team of theatre pros, including choreographer Briana Reed and musical director Jane Best.
A New York Times Critics Pick as one of the best shows of 2017, “As You Like It” is an immersive dream-like tale of faithful friends, feuding families, and lovers in disguise. We follow the love story of Rosalind (Rachel McMullen) and Orlando (Corey Jennings) on a quest to reunite after escaping Duke Frederick’s court. Throughout, characters grapple with identity, justice and redemption.
Forced from their homes, Orlando, Duke Senior, his daughter Rosalind, and niece Celia escape to the Forest of Arden, a fantastical place of transformation, where all are welcomed and embraced. Lost amid the trees, the refugees find community and acceptance under the stars.
Its original 17th century themes resonate in the 21st century with the many modernized elements, including a dynamic folk-pop score. “Shaina really adapted it, shortened it, and took a lot of soliloquies and scenes and put them to music in contemporary language,” O’Connor says. “This adaptation is really accessible and has a diverse cast. Even the gender pairing is different than the original, which is part of the inclusivity. It’s delightful and all about love and forgiveness. It’s also a comedy, so there are some really funny situations and moments.”
Its a world that exists between the past and the present.
“We don’t set it in Shakespearean time, and we don’t set it in modern time. It’s a fantasy world with a lot of styles thrown in, but it works,” says O’Connor, who adds that “the music is fantastic.”
In Arden, soft natural fabrics and earth tones are utilized to contrast with the more rigid and militaristic look of the court. Don’t be surprised if you see actors dancing around the stage in sneakers and sandals. That’s part of the show’s charm.
The original soundtrack features diverse musical styles such as hip-hop, lyrical, calypso, and even country western, performed by a four-piece band.
“I’m really excited for ‘Will You Be My Bride,’” says Luke Cimorelli of North Bellmore. “It’s kind of like this ‘80s boy band dance. It’s very hip-hop, we all wear backward hats and shirts tied around our waist.”
A graduate of Sanford H. Calhoun High School, Cimorelli plays one of the royal minions.
The cast rehearsed 17 hours each week to ensure that all the elements of this challenging production came together seamlessly, enabling the young actors to truly embrace the Bard’s poetry. The show’s two-week staging not only allows for them to sustain and craft their performance, but also gives the Cap21 program greater exposure. Next year, O’Connor aims to expand the performing schedule with additional productions.
For many of the cast, “As You Like It” is also a moment to reclaim their senior performance that was canceled due to the pandemic.
“I graduated high school in 2020, so I didn’t get to do my senior musical and have those senior experiences,” Cimorelli said. “So, it’s exciting to be a senior again and get these opportunities to be on stage.”
At its roots, Taub’s “As You Like It” is about the importance of community.
“What we see going on in the world right now, there’s so many divides,” O’Connor says. “It felt to me especially after going through Covid and so many struggles, in terms of identity and all the work to create inclusive spaces, like a really apt work to present to the greater community of Long Island.”
Indeed, “All the world’s a stage…” and we’re all invited to take part.