Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s latest take on As You Like It features a 1960s setting laced with the music of the Beatles. In between famous soliloquies and witty banter, the characters sing well-loved tunes like “Here Comes the Sun” and “All You Need Is Love.” The Beatles and the Bard aren’t quite a match made in heaven, however.
My husband recently pointed out that we’ve been to nearly 200 shows together and have only disagreed about how much we liked a production twice. This is one of those times. For him, the Beatles music was a fun addition to the story, a great way to infuse energy and modernity into a four-hundred-year-old script. For me, though, the music was a hindrance, not a help, to enjoying the story. There’s something jarring about switching rapidly and regularly from “prithee” and “thou” to “hey” and “yeah” and back again on an infinite loop. In their performances for students, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre talks about waiting for your ear to attune itself to the Shakespearean language the way you would accustom yourself to hearing a foreign language; with this play, such attuning is entirely impossible. It makes me wonder if, ironically, the addition of recent music has actually made the story less accessible to those unfamiliar with Shakespeare.
The music also doesn’t add much to the story. Shoehorning existing songs into an existing script is no easy task, and while this adaptation does it as well as it could be done, it’s hard to imagine why so very many Beatles love songs had to be shoved into and between scenes, as though the original text weren’t entirely clear that its primary theme is romantic love. The final flaw with converting As You Like It into a Beatles jukebox musical is one of casting: even Chicago’s deep talent pool, it seems, is not deep enough to find a full cast of Shakespeare actors who are also triple threats. Some of the cast are noticeably stronger singers than others, and it makes for an uncomfortable listening experience at times.
Aside from the musical aspect, the production is wonderful. Liam Quealy brings an undeniably charismatic himbo energy to leading man Orlando, and Lakeisha Renee is a charming, approachable Rosalind. Deborah Hay as a genderbent Jaques is wonderfully maudlin, providing some of the biggest laughs in a show full of big laughs. Kayvon Khoshkam’s Touchstone, of course, cannot be forgotten: in addition to ushering the audience into the world of the play as a wrestling announcer at the top of the show, Khoshkam keeps the jokes coming as he moves and speaks with great energy and comedic timing.
Scenic design by Pam Johnson successfully creates first the dingy glamor of a wrestling facility and then the bucolic enchantment of the Forest of Arden. Brightly colored flowers painted on the floor have to be my favorite element of the set, as they bring a certain cheeriness to all the proceedings. Color-changing lights framing the stage are a clever trick that allows for simple changes that create drastic differences in mood. Costumes by Carmen Alatorre feature an admirable attention to detail, with elements like Touchstone’s lightning-bolt-adorned platform shoes and Phoebe’s bridal flower crown infusing the story with delightful 1960s vibes.
As a lover of musical theatre, I’m surprised to find that I would have preferred this particular production of As You Like It if it had cut the singing and stuck to the Shakespeare. While stellar acting and design made for many enjoyable moments, in the end, the production’s overarching concept just didn’t draw me in.
Dates: October 15–November 21, 2021
Location: Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theater, 800 East Grand Avenue, Chicago, IL
Tickets: $49–$90. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Box Office at 312.595.5600 or visit the Theater’s website.
All photos by Liz Lauren.