Introducing the final performance of The Public Theater’s PublicWorks production of The Winter’s Tale, artistic director Oscar Eustis said that this massive, community-based project is “the most important thing we do.” Working with various community arts groups, hundreds of members of community organizations from all around New York City, and a small handful of professional actors, director Lear DeBessonet managed to substantiate that statement, crafting a performance that was something more that just a performance, a musical that felt more like an event.
The professionals leading the cast were certainly well utilized. As Hermione, the ill-accused queen of Sicilia, Lindsay Mendez’s unwavering intensity was matched by pitch-perfect, powerful vocals, and Christopher Fitzgerald was riotously funny as the vagabond Autolycus. And while the difference between the amateur and professional performers was at times uncomfortably noticeable, some matched their professional peers line for line. Lori Brown-King infused nuance, an indomitable presence, and a healthy dose of sass into her portrayal of Paulina, bringing much-needed comic relief to an otherwise dark first act. However, the standout among the community performers was teenager Javier Spivey. Mr. Spivey’s performance had the intensity and textual understanding of an actor several times his age, and during dance numbers featuring the two hundred-plus-member ensemble, his magnetic energy consistently drew my eyes to him.
Unfortunately, the material the actors’ had to work with didn’t always elevate their performances. The Winter’s Tale, with its plot predicated on a moment of irrational jealousy that tears a family asunder, is an odd choice for a musical comedy, and Todd Almond’s score did not help alleviate the inherently problematic nature of the show. The songs ranged from the inoffensive (a charming number for the long-lost princess Perdita, reminiscent of early-aughts girl-group pop) to the downright drab (almost every other song). The lyrics lacked any sense of style or subtext, and the melodies were mostly forgettable. I was also struck by how, in a production almost exclusively featuring people of color from some of New York’s most disenfranchised areas, the production chose to entirely ignore any issues of class, gender, and privilege that any contemporary production of the script—and especially a production like this—should be forced to grapple with.
As a piece of musical theater, The Winter’s Tale was not always successful. But, as a celebration of community and the power of performance, it was perhaps the most remarkable and moving production I’ve seen on stage in years. At its best, the performance was a celebratory, unbridled joy. Whether it was the cast of Sesame Street singing an ode to Shakespeare in the Park or a group of senior citizens from Brooklyn’s largely low-income Brownsville neighborhood happily stumbling their way through choreography, the production captured both the excitement of being onstage and the diversity of New York City. Sitting in the Delacorte, under a full moon, watching this mess of enthusiasm, craft, and raw talent, I was at times overcome with emotion. The Winter’s Tale may not have been a perfect show, but it was a unique theatrical experience.