At the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival in 2015, director Daryl Cloran made an unsuccessful attempt to turn Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost into a jukebox musical. Three years later, he is back with a superior musical treatment to another of the Bard’s comedies, As You Like It, in what is destined to be the hit of the summer.
As You Like It is a stark contrast to the more traditional production of Macbeth playing on alternating nights under the Bard on the Beach’s main stage tent. What links the two though is in the knowledge that the actors appearing in both, are the same.
No small feat for any company, made even more difficult given how different the two plays already are; one a brooding and bloody tragedy, the other a more gentle and silly pastoral comedy. Throw in the fact that this production of As You Like It also requires its actors to sing and dance to over twenty Beatles tunes, and it is downright mind-blowing they are able to pull it all off the two very dissimilar shows.
But what may keep the As You Like It cast motivated, and its audiences engaged, is in Cloran’s vision that not only infuses music from the Fab Four (alongside a few other surprises), but also a clarity of story that is second to none.
Moving Shakespeare’s original French setting to British Columbia of the 1960s, Vancouver becomes the location for the court. Duke Frederick has exiled his older brother, Duke Senior, but rather than fleeing to the Forest of Arden, in Cloran’s re-imagining, Senior flees to a commune in the Okanagan.
When Frederick also banishes Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, she too escapes to the Okanagan. Now disguised as a man named Ganymede, she is accompanied by her cousin, Celia, and a fool named Touchstone.
In the meantime, the young Orlando also finds himself fleeing in the same direction after being persecuted by his older brother, Oliver. Having already been smitten by Rosalind, it is not a surprise to know their paths will once more cross among the hippies (this is Shakespeare after all).
Confused? Don’t be. Even though Cloran says he “ripped half of Shakespeare’s text and replaced it with 25 songs by the Beatles”, his cuts are smart and serve the story. So much in fact, this may be one of the clearest renderings of As You Like It that you will ever see.
Of course, to pull it off requires a brave, flexible and multi-talented group of actors. And while not everyone in this terrific cast is up to the challenges of the Beatles’ music, they are, without exception, all fine Shakespearean actors.
Leading the charge here is Nadeem Phillip. In the role of Orlando, his performance at times if not only breathtaking to watch, his quest for Rosalind is ultimately believable. A great singing voice, he attacks Jonathan Hawley Purvis’ choreography with gusto, and simply abandons himself to the role.
Matching Phillip’s enthusiasm is Lindsey Angell as Rosalind. And even while she never makes a believable man, this is in keeping with Cloran’s vision which includes a huge wink to the audience. As Kayvon Khoshkam’s Touchstone reminds us, this is Shakespeare after all. We are in the joke. We know Rosalind is a woman, and nothing is going to change that fact. We are simply along for the ride, and Angell sells this fun house ride big time.
Speaking of Khoshkam, his is the star turn. As the fool, Touchstone, Khoshkam is overflowing with energy and a comedic timing that is at times astounding. His running gag about bees is hilarious, and his appearance is made even funnier with costume designer Carmen Alatorre putting him into a ridiculous striped suit, Rod Stewart wig, and a series of Elton John glasses.
When Touchstone discovers his own love in one of the Okanagan farmers, he finds his match in Emma Slipp, who simultaneously announces she is no slut, while pulling a cucumber out of a picnic basket.
Ben Carlson, who also plays the title role in Macbeth this year, plays Jacques “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs” de Boys. In turtleneck and a copper-coloured wig, his understated performance gives him a delightfully beatnik persona. In one of the big highlights of the evening, it is Carlson who provides Shakespeare’s famous “all the world’s a stage” speech, with a hilariously droll and yet passionately clear delivery. He also has a great deal of fun with the Beatles’ strange “I Am the Walrus”, where the original, perhaps not coincidentally, contains a reading from another of Shakespeare’s plays.
Other standouts in this sea of talent include Ben Elliott as the lovelorn Silvius, whose signature wiry movements continue to delight. And just because Elliott doesn’t already have enough to do, he also acts as the show’s musical director and sound designer.
As Silvius’ love interest, Phoebe, Luisa Jojic gives us a wicked version of “Something”, and as Rosalind’s cousin, Harveen Sandhu is luminous.
In one of the more touching moments in this raucous comedy, Andrew Wheeler delivers sober wisdom as Adam, while still managing to play the trombone in the showstopper “All You Need Is Love”.
Director Cloran is aided immensely by the creative team of Carmen Alatorre (costumes), Gerald King (lighting), and Pam Johnson (set design). Johnson even manages to incorporate a VW van that will eventually be put to good use by Touchstone and Audrey.
George Bernard Shaw once accused Shakespeare of writing As You Like It as a mere crowd-pleaser. If he were alive today he would no doubt double-down on that comment after having seen this version. But I say, bring on this crowd-pleasing summer of love. You’re not only going to like As You Like It, you’re going to love it.
And be sure to arrive at least fifteen minutes before curtain for the wrestling pre-show. It is not only a great deal of fun, it will most definitely help to get you into the right frame of mind.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daryl Cloran. A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production under the main stage tent in Vanier Park through September 28. Visit bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.
Editor’s Note (31 July): this review was updated to reflect the show’s new closing date of September 28.