A Jazz Age ‘As You Like It’ at Bay Street

An innovative approach to the enduring wit and captivating plot of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy
Hannah Cabell, David Samuel, Leenya Rideout, Kyle Scatliffe, and Ellen Burstyn seem to have mixed feelings about the music in “As You Like It.” Lenny Stucker

In the Bay Street Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,”which will open Wednesday evening at 7 and continue through Sept. 3, audiences will note its innovative approach to the enduring wit and captivating plot of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy.

John Doyle, the Scottish Drama Desk and Tony Award- winnning director of the Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” has put his indelible stamp on this production with the use of a musical score and characters who play instruments.

Mr. Doyle, who is the new artistic director of the Classic Stage Company in Manhattan, noted that the use of music and actor-musicians is a device” I created and developed working in Great Britain over a 20-year period.”

Of “As You Like It,” he said, “I feel it happens in two worlds, the world of the court and the world of the country, in this case the Forest of Arden. I’ve put quite a lot of music into the world of the forest, because music is a magical thing. It’s also something we associate with the country, where people make music on their front porch for a party or dance.”

The score for the production is the work of Stephen Schwartz, a composer and lyricist whose many theater credits include “Wicked,” “Godspell,” and “Pippin.” Mr. Schwartz, who also collaborated with Leonard Bernstein in the English text for “Mass,” has three Oscars, four Grammys, and a Tony to his credit.

“Because the play is about people from a sophisticated court who get flung into the country and are changed by that experience, John wanted the music for them to have a kind of sophistication,said Mr. Schwartz. “His idea was to set the play in the 1930s and to use a jazz-inflected score, which is way outside my normal style and therefore presented a really fun challenge for me.”

There are five songs, or lyrics, in what Mr. Schwartz called one of Shakespeare’s most musical plays. “These are mighty good lyrics, and one wants to honor what he wrote, but we did make a couple of little changes to make a few songs more song-like. In addition, there are verses and love poems, and we decided that rather than just have the characters speak them, we would set them to music as well. This production will have more sung material than other productions of ‘As You Like It.’ ”

Mr. Doyle, who also designed the set, described the imagery of the costumes as quite 1930s. “There’s a certain looseness and freedom in jazz, which I wanted the forest to feel like. The actors not only tell the story, speak the words, become the characters, but also make the music.”

Set in a duchy in France, the play opens in the court of Duke Frederick, who has exiled his older brother, Duke Senior, to the Forest of Arden. Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, has been allowed to remain at court because she is the best friend of Celia, Frederick’s only daughter.

While there, Rosalind meets Orlando, and they fall in love, but Orlando’s older brother, Oliver, mistreats him so badly that Orlando eventually flees to the forest, where he joins Duke Senior and his circle. When Frederick banishes Rosalind, she too takes off for the country, with Celia, and disguises herself as a ganymede, a man. Needless to say, when Ganymede meets Orlando in exile, comedy and confusion ensue.

Among the many characters the two women meet in the forest is Jacques, a melancholy and cynical man who makes many of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches in the play, among them “All the world’s a stage. . . .”In another gender-bending move, Jacques is here played by the Oscar, Tony, and Emmy Award-winning actress Ellen Burstyn. The production also stars Hannah Cabell as Rosalind, Andre De Shields as Touchstone, Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Celia, Kyle Scatliffe as Orlando, and Bob Stillman, who plays both dukes.

“The play is so funny, and incredibly contemporary in its attitude toward life and death and love,” Mr. Schwartz said. Many scholarly articles have examined its themes of identity, gender fluidity, and exile, which resonate so strongly today.

Performances will take place at the Sag Harbor theater on Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8, and Wednesdays and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m., with a pay-what-you-can show on Wednesday at 7. Ticket prices range from $40 to $125.