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Theatre in Review: The Tempest (New York Shakespeare Festival/Delacorte Theater)

Renée Elise Goldsberry and Public Works ensemble. Photo: Joan Marcus

The isle is full of magic, along with a faint hint of sadness, in this musical production that bids farewell to the Delacorte Theater in its current form. (It is closing for an eighteen-month renovation; next summer, we must contend with the absence of Shakespeare in the Park.) As a parting shot, everyone involved has collaborated on an entertainment that incarnates the vision of founding artistic director Joseph Papp in multiple ways.

The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival has always been about the enduring vitality of Shakespeare, new writing of a sociopolitical bent, and fresh approaches to musical theatre. This production hits the trifecta. Shakespeare's autumnal comedy is thoroughly reimagined with a magisterial female Prospero (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and a score by newcomer Benjamin Velez that infuses this tale of usurpation, shipwrecks, and revenge, with a powerful countermelody of love and forgiveness. And it is part of Public Works, an initiative that trains volunteers from the five boroughs, ranging in age from five to eighty, into a glorious ensemble supporting the cast of Equity principals. The first Public Theater production I saw in my youth was the early-seventies John Guare/Mel Shapiro/Galt MacDermot musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which reinvented the title city as a gorgeous mosaic of races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations -- very much like contemporary New York. More than fifty years later, that vision remains vibrant onstage at the Delacorte.

Velez's distinctive musical voice can be heard in the opening number, "Cast a Spell," which strikes an incantatory note while introducing the characters and announcing Prospero's intentions to provide her enemies' comeuppance. (She has, you will remember, been exiled from the dukedom of Milan by her brother Antonio, in cahoots with Alonso, king of Naples.) Miranda, Prospero's winsome daughter, and Ferdinand, her marooned object of affection, share a bubbly, syncopated duet titled "Vibin' on You," demonstrating Velez's skill at writing that most elusive of things, a charm song. Prospero, like the mother of teenagers everywhere, muses humorously on her daughter's choice of boyfriend material in "Log Man," which also nods, sadly, to the inevitability of time in its flight. The monstrous Caliban, Prospero's angry slave, has a real beauty of a ballad, "The Isle is Full Noises," which achieves the not-inconsiderable feat of humanizing him.

Laurie Woolery's production -- aided by the choreography of Tiffany Rea-Fisher, who skillfully deploys legions of performers -- often seems ready to break out into a street fair, thanks to the crowded stage and high-spirited cast. Goldsberry presides over the action with effortless authority, whether casting a cocked eye at her wayward daughter or struggling to bottle her rage when confronting Antonio; her satiny vocals easily seduce until, in a moment of fury, she stuns with a clarion high note that reveals the depths of her powers. We haven't seen her onstage since Hamilton and it's a pleasure to have her back. Jo Lampert is a watchful, purposeful Ariel, making a showstopping entrance dressed as a bird of prey. Joel Perez is the spirit of Shakespearean mischief as the rowdy, boozy servant Stephano, who makes Caliban (a surprisingly touching Theo Stockman) his drinking buddy and co-conspirator. Jordan Best and Naomi Pierre are so frankly and uncloyingly innocent that one instantly accepts Ferdinand and Miranda as true lovers within three hours of meeting.

Of course, a ninety-minute musical adaptation of a classic work lacks the richness of the original; some things are inevitably lost in the trimming of the text. For example, Prospero's cohort of enemies make a pretty bland lot, and the number "A Crown Upon Your Head," sung by the chief schemers Antonio (Anthony Chatmon II and Sebastian (Tristan André), lacks comic zing. There's also the matter of Alexis Distler's well-executed but confusing set design. It's a further degradation of the suburban Atlanta home designed by Beowulf Boritt for Hamlet earlier this season, itself a ruined version of his set for Much Ado About Nothing in 2019. Whatever connection this structure is meant to have with Prospero's island remains obscure; I hope we're done with this concept now. But Wilberth Gonzalez's beautifully painted, meticulously tailored costumes are a treat. David Weiner's lighting floods the stage with gorgeous, contrasting color palettes, and Jessica Paz's sound design is so clear and present that even the airplanes overhead don't interfere with the fun.

Hearing Goldsberry deliver Prospero's most famous speech ("Our revels now are ended") it's hard not to feel a little melancholy at the forthcoming pause in the Delacorte schedule, which, in my case, stretches back to a 1982 staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream, starring, among others, William Hurt, Christine Baranski, Deborah Rush, and Jeffrey DeMunn. Still, as artistic director Oskar Eustis has made clear, renovations are urgently needed. In any case, this lovely production, which is ideal for kids, is a fine way of marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. --David Barbour

(30 August 2023)

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