Oh, My “D-Illyria” For Shaina Taub’s First-Rate ‘Twelfth Night’

The rain fell steadily, once stopping the show for maybe 15 minutes. I refused to budge.

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Nikki M. James and the overflowing cast of "Twelfth Night." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Shaina Taub! Remember the name. If you don’t already know it. An inadequate description would dub her a rising singer-songwriter. But she plays the piano, the accordion, who knows what else, and she acts. Her CDs — Given and Visitors, among them — are absolute proof of her lofty prowess. She appears regularly at offerings at the Public Theater. Artistic Director Oscar Eustis obviously knows what’s worth encouraging.

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For a few years now, Taub has contributed to the Public’s end-of-summer productions at the Delacorte Theater created through their invaluable Public Works division. Not only has she been musicalizing Shakespeare for free Shakespeare in Central Park, but she’s been appearing in them as actor and band member as well.

In 2016, Taub participated in a Twelfth Night tune-up that she co-conceived with Kwame Kwei-Armah, who directed. The take was so entertaining that Eustis asked Taub to fiddle with that forerunner and now is presenting it full-out at the Delacorte, with Kwei-Armah, incoming artistic director of London’s Young Vic, sharing directorial credit with Eustis, and choreography by Lorin Latarro. Taub plays the ubiquitous clown Feste and often joins in on the activities with her accordion strapped on. That is, when she’s not slipping into the stage-left tent housing the band.

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Bottom line: Taub’s songs are a wow. Not every last one connects but it’s rare when they don’t. The first to click big-time is the opener, which employs the first line of Twelfth Night — “If music be the food of love, play on” — as a starting point.

And on the ditties come, irresistibly melodic and slyly sophisticated. They include the comic number “You’re the Worst” and ballads like “If You Were My Beloved” and “Is This Not Love?” Is an original cast album on the way? There deserves to be, and I want it.

It would be incorrect to report that the Bard’s enduring comedy has been shortened to accommodate the songs. A more precise description would be that the script has been severely trimmed to an intermissionless 90 minutes with the songs substituting for much of the dialogue taking place in mythical Illyria.

It is within that busy paradise that fraternal twins Viola (Nikki M. James) and Sebastian (Troy Anthony) wash up on different parts of the shore after a shipwreck. Disguising herself as a boy to enter the court of Duke Orsino (Ato Blankson-Wood), Viola falls for him but must intercede in his futile courting of Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich), who’s mourning her deceased brother. All manner of mistaken-identity folderol accumulates before the giddy conclusion. Among those so enfolded are Olivia’s bibulous relative, Sir Toby Belch (Shuler Hensley); her scheming maid, Maria (Lori Brown-Niang); Toby’s ineffectual chum, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Daniel Hall); Fabian (Patrick J. O’Hare), a hanger-on; prissy valet Malvolio (Andrew Kober); and, of course, Taub’s zesty Feste.

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In the last 18 months or so, I have seen at least a half dozen takes on Twelfth Night. I was even on the verge of imposing on myself an extended Twelfth Night moratorium. Then the Taub treatment re-materialized, and off I raced.

Still, some of the vanished poetry is missed. I don’t remember hearing a complete reading of Viola’s stunning speech about enamored people failing to acknowledge their love. When Maria and her naughty pals get behind the famous letter about cross-gartering, they also suggest in the note that the duped Malvolio appear before his mistress, smiling. Those goofy grins don’t show up here.

There’s also an insertion worth noting. Sebastian, until he and Olivia become all love-at-first-sight, is protected by the fugitive Antonio (Jonathan Jordan). Kwei-Armah and Taub apparently couldn’t resist doing the trendy thing of turning this pairing into Antonio’s hope for a same-sex attraction. Well, OK.

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When the earlier Public Works Twelfth Night was mounted for very few performances, the amateur groups rounded up from each of NYC’s five boroughs participated every night. For this outing, there are two alternating ensembles, Blue and Red. I saw only Blue and got a kick out of everything they were called on to do. I’d bet that the Red Ensemble is, measure for measure, just as well-drilled.

How much did I fall for this Twelfth Night? At the performance I attended, the rain fell steadily, once stopping the show for maybe 15 minutes. I refused to budge. Neither did most of the audience. Fittingly, Twelfth Night features the line “For the rain it raineth every day.” I’d sit in the raineth anytime for this production.