Love’s Labour’s Lost boasts a heap of talent

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      By William Shakespeare. Directed by Daryl Cloran. A Bard on the Beach production. On the Howard Family Stage on Friday, June 26. Continues in rep until September 20

      There’s a heap of talent on-stage in Love’s Labour’s Lost, but it’s not always being put to work on Shakespeare.

      In Daryl Cloran’s production, the kingdom of Navarre has been reinvented as a speakeasy on Chicago’s South Side in the Roaring 20s. The King is a gang boss who has decided to shut down his nightclub and, along with friends Berowne and Dumain, swear off drinking, gambling, and women and devote himself to three years of study.

      Sounds great in theory, but when Princess, the daughter of a rival kingpin, shows up with her friends Rosaline and Katherine, the three men are immediately smitten, making their oath of abstinence feel like a cruel joke. Meanwhile, visiting gangster Don Armato is up in arms that Navarre’s emcee, Costard, has been consorting with his own lover, the flapper Jaquenetta.

      In his director’s notes, Cloran calls his production an “adaptation”: he’s jettisoned nearly half of Shakespeare’s text and fleshed out the play with jazz standards, mostly from the 1920s. That’s fair, given that this play has never been one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies; much of its dense Elizabethan wordplay tends to be lost on contemporary theatregoers.

      But even in Cloran’s abridged version, there are problems with the story: a scene of mistaken identities among the lovers feels interminable because it’s not clear what’s at stake, and the play’s denouement is oddly deferred. The songs are terrific, and are arguably this production’s greatest strength—but since they rarely serve to advance the story, they eventually feel like too much of a good thing.

      Cloran’s vision is in very capable hands with this supremely talented ensemble, though. Josh Epstein’s Berowne is the play’s most eloquent advocate for the wisdom imparted by experience; his feelings are always convincing, and he sings with a voice like butterscotch. Luisa Jojic brings an openhearted playfulness and a richly sensual voice to the role of his love interest, Rosaline. Lindsey Angell, as Princess, is equally assured as an actor and singer; her take on “Lovable and Sweet” is a delicious highlight.

      As Don Armato, Andrew McNee channels a weird but winning mix of Marlon Brando in The Godfather and Tony Bennett in Vegas, and Lili Beaudoin pours an infectious energy into his impish sidekick, Moth. Dawn Petten matches McNee’s fearless goofiness as Jaquenetta. Playing Costard, Andrew Cownden is a true vaudevillian: he’s got crackerjack comic timing, he blows a mean trumpet, and his preshow puppet act shows a knack for impersonation that will delight Bard regulars.

      There’s plenty of sensual enjoyment to be had here, too: costume designer Rebekka Sørensen-Kjelstrup’s exquisite flapper dresses are the best eye candy you’ll see this summer. Ben Elliott’s musical direction is crisp and lively, and Marshall McMahen’s set brings the party, with Valerie Easton’s superb choreography, right into the audience.

      That party starts before the play even begins, so if you’re a fan of the Jazz Age, go early, and you won’t be disappointed. If you’re a Shakespeare purist, you might be.