Two nights ago my roommate cajoled me into watching “Moulin Rouge.” Not that I was particularly hesitant: I recently fell hard for Baz Luhrmann’s exuberant Netflix series “The Get Down,” which shares its characters’ relentless drive to achieve greatness so much so that you see the sweat dripping from every pixel. But I hated “Moulin Rouge” from the the opening string swell. I hated the willy-nilly appropriation of “The Sound of Music” and Kurt Cobain, the singing cardboard-cutout-characters, the relentless antics. About 40 minutes in (although it seemed like three hours), Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman emerge on a roof for the Classic Duet Scene: a big montage about love, a medley of every indelible hook containing the word “love” from the past 50 years. But the songs aren’t servicing the love story: the love story services Baz Luhrmann himself. It’s a preening, glittery, pungent masturbation.
The spectacle was nearly enough to put me off of spectacle altogether. And “Twelfth Night,” which closed the Public Theater’s summer season last night, is rife with unnecessary pageantry. Conceived and adapted into musical by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub, the production was a toothless caper on top of a silly love song–but a thoroughly enchanting one at that; it won me over with sheer talent and doe-eyed commitment to its craft.
Adapting Shakespeare is a dangerous balancing act, and Taub wasted no time in breaking a ton of unwritten rules. 1) Show, Not Tell — she split up the show into chapters and then neatly summarized each one in a little Motown number. 2) Don’t Overplay Topicality — there was dabbing, for fuck’s sake. 3) Don’t write with cliches — there were some truly horrid, overused couplets in there.
But still, the show sailed along with confidence and overwhelming charm. It helped that Taub was onstage for most of it, breaking the fourth wall with genial poise. Her mini-summaries surprisingly didn’t hinder the action, but rather augment it with enthusiasm and pithy, witty analysis. With her easy command of both the Shakespearean verbage and the text slang, Taub made it clear she wasn’t pandering, but genuinely devoted to enhancing the story’s relatability.
The music was strong, if familiar: in the Sara Bareilles wheelhouse of breezy, soulful pop that sounds like guilty pleasure on the surface, but packs theoretical trickiness upon closer inspection. Taub herself played a comforting Rhodes on top of a convertible for most of the show, and was supported by a three piece band that sank into Stevie Wonder-esque pockets with obvious glee. The singing results were mixed, but Nikki M. James crushed as a restrained but intensely smoldering Viola.
The actors reveled in the show’s middlebrow laughs, groans, and campiness. Daniel Hall did the Nae Nae as Andrew Aguecheek; Taub told dumb puns as Feste, mirthfully letting each one bomb; Jacob Ming-Trent cackled and sauntered across the bright, technicolor stage as a pimped out, T-Pain trickster version of Toby Belch. Stealing the show was Andrew Kober as the hapless Malvolio; you’ve never seen a thinner excuse for a minor villain, or one that so embraced the indignities of yellow stockings and a schmaltzy kickline.
Because it was Public Works program, “Twelfth Night” featured community groups from around the city–dance groups, choruses, brass bands that were in the show for the reason of only being in the show. It would have been easy for the show to be undone by randomness or excess; to fall prey to either the humorless idealism of unity or sheepishness over the incongruity. But the parade of performers succeeded, because of their unwavering effort. From the stray high schoolers who breathlessly recited one line, to the solemn, expressive sign-language troupe, to the Chinese drummer/martial arts battalion; they dedicated themselves so fiercely to their craft, and made no pretenses about the oddness of the fit, that it was all an utter joy to watch. The show was a conveyor belt of various marvels. And Taub was the foreman at the helm, keeping the line cruising right along.