‘As You Like It’ a fab pairing of the Beatles and the Bard
This technicolor jukebox musical is set in the ’60s and highlights a winning combination of the Beatles’ greatest hits with humor.
“As You Like It,” now playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, contains the famous words “All the world’s a stage,” beginning the monologue, referred to as “7 Ages of Man,” which tracks the progression of life from cradle to grave. As the most frequently produced dramas in the English-speaking world, Shakespeare’s works continuously seek reinvention to maintain modern relevance, even as the palatability of societal norms in the text ages poorly. Much like the later ages of man, these reinventions often take an irreverent and joyous return toward childhood.
When: Through Nov. 21
Where: Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave., Navy Pier
Run-time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Note: For COVID-19 safety protocols, visit the theater website.
The Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Beatles-themed rendition of “As You Like It” is exactly that — joyous and irreverent, and entirely in the spirit of the Bard. Conceived and adapted by Daryl Cloran for the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, and directed by Cloran here in Chicago, this technicolor jukebox musical is set in the ’60s and highlights a winning combination of the Beatles’ greatest hits with humor. Audiences are eager for light-hearted entertainment, and this delivers, in an environment that encourages public safety — vaccine cards and IDs are checked at the door.
The play opens in a boxing ring, in an homage to professional WWE wrestling, which was conceived in the ’60s. While it’s entertaining to watch the actors bouncing around on the ropes, the top rope unfortunately blocks the faces of some of the shorter actors, depending on where you are seated.
Liam Quealy plays a charming and spunky Orlando, who takes to the road with his senior manservant Adam, portrayed warmly by Steven Pringle. Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to Orlando, his new love Rosalind (a bright and peppy Lakeisha Renee) has been banished from the court and decides to run away disguised as a man named Ganymede, along with her favorite cousin Celia (played by a hilariously spirited Melanie Brezill.)
It turns out that the music of the Beatles perfectly complements the rom-com feel of “As You Like It.” The driving beat from the live band onstage propels the storytelling forward, giving the show a concert vibe, though the sound level could stand to be raised. The softer volume on the Beatles’ rock left some well-executed numbers sounding unnecessarily hollow. However, that didn’t stop the eager and engaged audience from singing the iconic high notes on songs like “I Saw Her Standing There” when the cast did not.
Comedy and rock ‘n’ roll aside, pastoral themes of renewal and care resonate deeply against the backdrop of COVID-19. The aforementioned “7 Ages of Man” monologue (delivered by an outstanding and frenetic Deborah Hay as Jacques) is bookended with two touching scenes evoking compassion for youth and age, guided expertly by an outstanding Kevin Gudhahl as Duke Senior. May we all find such understanding in these troubling times. The relationship between Celia and Rosalind provides sweet commentary on sisterhood and loyalty.
The show isn’t perfect; the second act lags, and several of Rosalind’s solos feel perfunctory and could use additional creative scaffolding. While some of the songs gain deeper meaning from the context of the play, some feel shoehorned in. Having said that, every song is excellently executed. “When I’m 64” is sung by LaChrisa Grandberry as Audrey, and her showstopper voice, paired with the absolutely hilarious Kayvon Khoshkam as Touchstone, creates a dynamic duo of laughs. A beautiful version of “Let It Be” with a touching a cappella segment is stellar, as is a top-notch version of “As My Guitar Gently Weeps” sung by the golden voice of Austin Eckert playing Amiens. Some of the gender roles in the text have aged as well as spoiled milk, yet the cotton-candy frothiness of the concept provides a huge spoonful of sugar to help the sexism go down. A hilarious performance of “Something” by Heidi Kettenring as Phoebe deadlifts an awkward role reversal off of the page and, through some witchery, makes it sparkle.
“As You Like It” is a rollicking good time, and a wonderfully lighthearted show. Though purists may frown at the commerciality of the jukebox musical form, Chicago Shakespeare Theater (along with its counterparts at Black Ensemble Theater) has figured out that in order to keep audiences returning and happy, all you need is love — and music and laughter.