By Jean Lowerison
‘Much Ado’ tosses many classic tunes
Ah, Will, you gave us so many wonderful — and awful — stories and characters. Sometimes even in the same play.
The Old Globe’s summer festival brings us what Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein calls “the first English-language romantic comedy” in a sprightly production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Primarily known for the two central characters Beatrice and Benedick — who spend most of the play denying their mutual attraction until their friends trick them into admitting the truth — the play also gets serious when a bad actor named Don John tries to scotch the wedding plans of two other important characters, soldier Claudio and pretty young thing Hero.
The Old Globe, under the assured directorial hand of Kathleen Marshall, moves the well-known story to the 1930s, with all the eye-catching costumes (by Michael Krass) that era brought us, and plays it on John Lee Beatty’s candy-colored set (complete with a crystal-look dining-room chandelier). And then tosses in many songs of the time, from Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Fall in Love” to Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.”
But don’t let the lightness fool you. There’s near-tragedy waiting in the wings.
You recall the plot: The Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro (Michael Boatman), his bastard brother Don John (Manoel Felciano) and two friends — the shy, young Italian nobleman Claudio (Carlos Angel-Barajas) and Benedick (Michael Hayden) roll in from a successful battle in a jaunty-looking covered buggy.
Beatrice (Sara Topham) and Benedick promptly resume their “merry war” of words, while Claudio falls for Hero (Morgan Taylor), the pretty young daughter of the governor of Messina Leonato (René Thornton, Jr.).
A wedding is arranged for Hero and Claudio. While they’re waiting, Benedick’s buddies decide to speed up Benedick’s realization that he really loves Beatrice by setting up a hilarious scene in which they claim to have heard her swooning over him.
Then Beatrice’s friends Hero and Ursula (Larica Schnell) do the same thing for Beatrice.
But our bad guy, Don John (played with great wickedness by Felciano) decides to ruin things for Claudio by telling him Hero is unfaithful, and he will prove it if Claudio and Hero’s father watch below her window that night, when he has set up a phony scene that gives that impression.
These guys fall for the ruse (go figure), and the day of the wedding ends in great unhappiness, with Claudio denouncing Hero and even her father claiming it would be better if she died.
But never fear, all will be well, and the show will end with both couples united.
Despite the title, this play isn’t about “nothing.” It’s a pun on “noting,” and the topic is perception, misinterpretation and the ease with which people can be led to misconstrue actions or tricked into believing something that isn’t true.
Marshall has a splendid cast, most especially in Topham and Hayden as the bicker-all-the-way-to-the-bedroom lovers.
Taylor is an extremely lovely and affecting Hero. Angel-Barajas has the right look but seemed a bit tentative as young Claudio.
Fred Applegate is hilarious as Dogberry, the malaprop-prone constable, and Felciano, a frequent Old Globe actor, is suitably nasty as Don John.
This “Much Ado” has a great deal to recommend it, and I do.
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at email@example.com.