All singing! All dancing! All Shakespeare! Question for Kenneth Branagh, the master thespian who directed himself onscreen in Henry V and Hamlet and who has now concocted a musical version of the Bard’s 1598 play Love’s Labour’s Lost, set the thing in 1939, cut about seventy percent of the text, filled in the gaps with tunes by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, and cast such noted non-Shakespeareans as Alicia (Clueless) Silverstone, Matthew (Scream) Lillard and Nathan (The Birdcage) Lane: Come on, man, what are you smoking? As lousy ideas go, this one ranks with Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, the tin-eared 1975 turkey in which Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd conspired to massacre the music of Cole Porter.
Branagh’s take on the play comes right up to the edge of disaster but stubbornly refuses to leap in. Charm keeps peeking through the thin excuse for a plot: The king of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and three buddies (Branagh, Lillard and Adrian Lester) vow to give up women and devote three years to study. Then the princess of France (Silverstone) arrives with three comely attendants (Natascha McElhone, Emily Mortimer, Carmen Ejogo), and the vow goes kaput.
OK, the chorus numbers are blaring and flat-footed. Lane, as a clown, presses too hard. And Silverstone’s sexy tongue isn’t made for iambic pentameter. But the intimate moments often sparkle. Nivola, Lester and McElhone display a lovely ease. And Branagh, as star and director, moves winningly from Shakespeare’s poetry to the bounce of Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek.” Heaven? Yes, but you catch it only in glimpses.