All you need is love, the Fab Four and Shakespeare: Beatles-infused As You Like It a surefire crowd-pleaser
Mashing up Shakespeare’s comedy with Beatles tunes is an idea so good, you wonder why it wasn’t done before
"Get to your seat 25 minutes early if you want to catch the band and some Superstar Wrestling!"
That cheerful suggestion on the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's website might be your first clue that their co-production of As You Like It (with Edmonton's Citadel Theatre, where the show heads next month) is not Shakespeare for purists.
And it's all the better for it, with a creative mashup of the Bard and the Beatles that's a surefire crowd-pleaser.
Director Daryl Cloran's adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy (the tentpole production of ShakespeareFest — the 20th, and final, edition of the RMTC's annual Master Playwright Festival) was first presented in 2018 at Vancouver's Bard on the Beach festival, where its extended run reportedly broke attendance records.
This should probably come as no surprise. Basing a musical on the writing of the man widely considered the English language's greatest dramatist and the music of the most popular band in rock history is perhaps not a huge gamble.
But the surprise is how well it works — and it's such a fitting match that you wonder why it hasn't been done before.
Cloran's kinetic, playful and inventive production sets Shakespeare's comedy in the 1960s, moving the central action from the forest of Arden to "the wild Okanagan" of British Columbia (a setting beautifully realized in Carmen Alatorre's far-out costumes and Pam Johnson's charming set), and putting the story to music via no fewer than 25 tunes by the Fab Four (woven in mostly seamlessly by music director Ben Elliott).
Like all Shakespeare comedies — and an awful lot of Beatles songs — As You Like It concerns itself with love.
Orlando (Jeff Irving), is cheated out of an inheritance by his jealous brother (Justin Stadnyk) and falls in love at first sight with Rosalind (Lindsey Angell), also a victim of injustice. She is the daughter of a banished duke (Paul Essiembre), deposed by her villainous uncle (also Essiembre).
Orlando and Rosalind both soon find themselves exiled to the forest — Rosalind along with her cousin and bestie Celia (Jameela McNeil), Orlando with his trusty servant (Robb Paterson).
Shakespearean complications ensue in the woods, with gender swapping, secret notes, lusty shepherds and unrequited love.
Yes, it all makes about as much sense as the lyrics to I Am the Walrus (given a hilariously weird rendition here by Sarah Constible as the melancholy philosopher Jaques).
No matter. Whether you follow the twists and turns of the plot is secondary when you're having this much fun.
The tone is set right from the pre-show wrestling match, marvellously choreographed by Jonathan Hawley Purvis. (The wrestling part is actually in Shakespeare's original text — though one suspects there was probably less spandex involved in 1598.)
From there, Cloran's 2 ½-hour production moves at a whip-smart pace, with laughs and Beatles tunes alike coming at a steady clip.
In a few spots the tunes seem to appear a bit randomly, but that's a quibble — the important thing is that the 15-member cast, some of whom also pick up instruments to double as the live band, handle the show's musical demands with aplomb.
The setting sometimes brings fresh new resonance to Beatles classics, as when Rosalind — disguised as Ganymede, a man — sings You've Got to Hide Your Love Away.
As the foppish jester Touchstone, Kayvon Khoshkam brings a wonderfully unhinged energy to Helter Skelter while he fights for the love of the simple shepherdess Audrey (a delightfully odd Jenny McKillop). At the other end of the spectrum, Austin Eckert (as an exiled lord) gives a tender rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
In addition to their strong voices, the cast also shows off great comic timing throughout.
Farren Timoteo, seen at RMTC last season in his own solo show Made in Italy, is a standout, displaying his considerable physical clowning prowess (and some crisp dance moves) as the hapless shepherd Silvius, hopelessly in love with the vain Phoebe (Emily Dallas).
Khoshkam also brings some delightfully over-the-top laughs as Touchstone.
Essiembre does impressive double duty, both representing "The Man" as the comically rotten Duke Frederick, and embodying the grooviness of peace, love and understanding as the deposed Duke Senior.
As Jaques, Constible delicately handles one of Shakespeare's most well-known speeches — the "Seven Ages of Man" speech (which famously begins with the line "All the world's a stage").
And as the central lovers — often a thanklessly humourless role — Angell and Irving both give spirited comedic performances, still delivering a credible chemistry as two young people very much in love (and more than just a little randy).
It's not much of a spoiler to say things work out fairly well for the assorted lovers.
And it's hard to think of a more fitting song to usher in the joyous final scene of a Shakespeare pastoral comedy than Here Comes the Sun — or a more suitable note to end on than a reminder that All You Need is Love.