Pictured (from left) are Anne Yumi Kobori as Celia, Michael Barrett Austin* as Orlando, and Regina Morones as Rosalind in San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's Free Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It. (*member Actors' Equity Association) 

Beginning this Saturday night Pleasanton’s Amador Valley Park will be transformed into the Forest of Arden as the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival begins previews of their new summer show, “As You Like It.” It will be a fully staged musical, SF Shake’s first such endeavor, with a live band onstage, dancing, and 11 original songs.

The initial inspiration to do the Bard’s work is such a way, according to director Rebecca J. Ennals, was that "this play already has the most songs of any Shakespeare play in it. We said, ‘How about if we fully musicalize it?’”

Kate Kilbane and Dan Moses, the musical composing team of the rock band The Kilbanes, were brought in to write tunes for 9 of the songs. SF Shakes resident artist Phil Wong wrote the other two. Some of the lyrics are over 400 years old and some will be heard here for the first time.

“Even in Shakespeare’s time he didn’t always write the words to the songs, says Ennals. “I think in this play, ‘A Lover and his Lass,’ was written by a guy named Thomas Morley. It was a known, popular song.”

Writing modern lyrics also meant there was an opportunity to update certain things. Ennals jokes that “this is ‘As You like it’ with no sheep and no deer, but lots of music. I wanted to talk more about what the differences are between the court and the forest in kind of an imaginary future. If we live in a world where the court is where wealth is hoarded, and where there’s a lot of manipulation, and dirty politics and dirty corporate activity, then the forest becomes a place where people can escape, and have freedom,”

She continues, “I say this with great respect for all those for whom ‘As You Like It’ is an absolutely favorite play, but I found that some of the humor is so topical to 1599, that it felt like there were a lot things that could be trimmed, or cut, in order to make space for songs.”

“There were whole passages and scenes where the jokes were pretty obscure. And then there were some things that are just so perfect as they are that I didn’t want to touch them, like ‘All the world is a stage…’ Nobody wants to hear a song of that. They just want to hear the speech. There were quite a few passages like that, that felt just perfect the way they are.”

The setting of this version of the play will be a kind of dystopia that might be familiar to fans of “The Hunger Games.” But some parts of the story, including being homeless or being a refugee, are as relevant today as they were originally (or might be in the future.) To keep it real SF Shakes, during the development of the play, did a workshop with Simply the Basics, an organization that works with homeless people to “help them meet their most basic needs with dignity so they can focus on greater goals.”

Rennals said that in the workshop they "talked about, explored and told stories around the themes of the play with folks who experienced homelessness in our community. One of them has become a community consultant on the show. We ask her, ‘How does it feel? What is the story of people who are being exiled?’ We don’t want to glamorize it. And we don’t want to overlook something that would be a truthful way to tell that story.”

“As You Like It,” which Ennals considers to be “Shakespeare’s queerest play,” also happens, most auspiciously, to be opening on Gay Pride Weekend. “Shakepeare really messed with the expectations of the Elizabethan audience. It was like, ‘The boy is playing a girl, but then the girl plays a boy, who then turns around and plays a girl again.’” Ennals is very proud to have directed "this really wonderfully genderqueer play; and our casting is always very inclusive of genders.”

The previews will be followed by two more weekends of performances in Pleasanton before SF Shakes takes the show on the road around the Bay Area. As in past years, it will be a family-friendly event,. Everyone is welcome. The play starts at 7PM but getting there early and bringing food and drink is encouraged. There will be a “Green Show” before the main event that sets things up and will help kids understand what they are about to see. It’s all free.

Performances will take place at Pleasanton’s Amador Valley Community Park, Santa Rita Road and Black Avenue, on June 29, 30 (previews), and July 6, 7, 13 and 14. For more info visit www.sfshakes.org.