The boundless humanity of William Shakespeare allows for many settings; some of the most appealing placements come when music that endearingly conveys heart and spirit accompanies the production. Such is the case with Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s Americana-infused version of As You Like It now playing in the 27th annual edition of Shakespeare in the Park.
Director Denice Hicks and her collaborators – which in addition to a large cast includes the top-flight team of Music Director Stan Lawrence, set designer Morgan Matens, Costume Designer June Kingsbury, Hair/Makeup Designer Aria Durso, Light Designer Anne Willingham, Dance Choreographer Pam Atha and Fight Choreographer David Wilkerson among others – have fashioned an ambitious 1930s-flavored presentation that features the marvelous full-folk-blooded music of beloved songwriter David Olney accompanying words from the Bard himself. And though there are moments that have not jelled completely as of Thursday’s opening, it’s likely given the solid concept and talents involved that the overall rhythm of this ultimately enjoyable show will improve with each performance.
Noted scholar Harold Bloom gave top marks to As You Like It for sheer pleasure; the pastoral and romantic threads of this mature comedy (Shakespeare had already written several and likely penned this one around the same time as one of his great tragedies, Hamlet) along with sharply-defined characters (in some cases from the 1590 Thomas Lodge novel “Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacie” and in others from the Bard’s fertile imagination) makes it a real treat in the hands of good actors. That is happily true here.
The melancholic Jaques (he of “All the world’s a stage…” fame) comes to life through the well-grounded command of Derek Whittaker, who in addition to speaking some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines gets a spirited Olney composition as well (“It Almost Makes Me Laugh (Jaques’ Song)”). One bit of staging undermines the conclusion of Whittaker’s strong and engaging attack on the so-called “Seven Ages of Man” speech – an earlier hilarious interaction has left Brian Webb Russell’s Adam in the audience, and he’s assisted to the stage down the center aisle as Whittaker completes that speech. That’s not Whittaker’s fault, of course, but it’s worth noting as it unnecessarily intrudes on a moment that should belong to Jaques and to those of us watching and hearing him.
Russell – who in addition to the servant Adam has two other roles – anchors a supporting cast that largely handles their assignments with commitment and good energy. That includes (but is not limited to) the ever-reliable Nat McIntyre in the dual roles of the usurping Duke Frederick and his wronged brother Duke Senior, Houston Mahoney as the noble Orlando, Santiago Sosa as his conniving brother Oliver, Phil Perry and Naivell Steib as shepherds Corin and Silvius, Jaye Phelps as the wise fool Touchstone and Amanda Card as Frederick’s daughter Celia.
But if this play has one character that stands out above the others it is the cross-dressing Rosalind, played with perfect pitch by Emily Landham. Yes, it’s a little silly to believe that a young woman can be mistaken for a young man merely by putting her long hair under a cap and donning male attire, but just as in Shakespeare’s time (when young boys often played girls since females were prohibited from the stage) we’re asked to suspend our disbelief and join in the narrative dance that leads from love’s first sight to wedded bliss. Landham is obviously having fun with it all, which makes it very easy to have fun viewing her portrayal.
Threading through the moments are the wonderful tunes composed by Olney (who even plays one of the show’s characters, Amiens, in his Shakespearian acting debut, as well as providing music-making accompaniment along with Lawrence, Kelsey Crews, Anwen Wilkerson, Kat Hanrahan and Mary Jane McClarty). It’s not just the sounds we might expect to hear in a tent village like the one masterfully created by Matens; its beats are the optimistic pulse of a people who know that when they’re at the bottom the only way is up.
Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in the Park production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It directed by Denice Hicks continues at the Centennial Park Bandshell through Sept. 14. Admission is free with a suggested $10 donation to the nonprofit company. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday evenings with pre-show entertainment starting at 6:30 p.m. There will also be a special Labor Day performance Sept. 1. Food and drink can be purchased at the park. For a very special experience, a limited number of reserved ringside seats and gourmet picnic dinners are available in the Royal Box. Royal Box tickets ($50 per person) benefit Nashville Shakespeare Festival education programs and are partially tax deductible.