‘Twelfth Night’ Theater Review: Nikki M James Shines in a Speedy Musical Revival

If music be the food of love, this lively 90-minute production shows, you need not play on and on and on

twelfth night
Photo: Joan Marcus

It’s possible that all of William Shakespeare’s comedies just play better as musicals. That was certainly the case suggested by “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” which got an antic and tuneful contemporary update five years ago from director Alex Timbers and composer Michael Feldman as part of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series.

And there’s also much to admire in the new pared-down musical version of “Twelfth Night,” which opened Tuesday in a lively and fleet-of-foot production as part of the same al fresco series.

For one thing, the conventions of American musical theater allow co-conceivers Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub to streamline parallel characters and storylines into multi-verse songs that don’t overstay their welcome.

No more belaboring the crass antics of Sir Toby Belch (Shuler Hensley), meek Sir Andrew (Daniel Hall) and the obsequious servant Malvolio (Andrew Kober) — whose over-the-topness seems more natural in the sphere of musical comedy anyway.

This “Twelfth Night,” developed as part of the Public Works program, finds a clever use for its plus-size ensemble of nearly 100 amateur performers from the city’s five boroughs (half perform each night). They act as chorus, CliffsNoting the Bard’s convoluted plotting, as well as backup dancers and singers. The production also seamlessly incorporates American Sign Language (and deaf performers), particularly in Lorin Latarro’s energetic choreography.

Tony winner Nikki M. James (“The Book of Mormon”) shines as Viola, the shipwrecked young woman who poses as a boy servant named Cesario and becomes the center of a love triangle involving her supposed master, Orsino (Ato Blankson-Wood), and Orsino’s crush Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich) — who only has eyes for Viola (now posing as Cesario and looking very much like her feared-for-dead brother, Sebastian).

James captures that sense of longing and repression in “Tell Her,” a well-crafted ballad of unrequited love. The sense of misplaced passion extends to others in the cast as well, including Sebastian (Troy Anthony) and the sea captain Antonio (Jonathan Jordan) who rescues him from the storm and follows him to Illyria despite a bounty on his head. (This production, directed by Kwei Armah and Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, gives the clearest explanation I’ve seen for why Antonio would risk so much for a newfound noble companion.)

Taub, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show and also plays Olivia’s accordion-playing fool Feste, uses her songs to effectively convey both character and humor. She also gets off a few original zingers, as when her Feste sings of the dipsomaniacal Sir Toby Belch, “Your burps are so famous they’re part of your name, you smell like perfume made of whiskey and shame.”

And while there’s a certain sameness to the score — and no show-stoppers quite like “Love’s a Gun” from “Love’s Labour’s Lost” — there are no outright clunkers either.

Purists may scoff at any Shakespearean revival that manages to wrap up all of the twisted storylines with three weddings (and the hint of a fourth) in just 90 minutes. But this “Twelfth Night” not only manages that feat but suggests that if music be the food of love, there’s no need to play on and on and on.