Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Kenny Leon's Much Ado

Yes, theatre in the parks can be a challenge, as the weather doesn't always want to cooperate, but after much ado, I finally saw Much Ado About Nothing in Central Park last night.

The Public Theater gives out tickets to Shakespeare in the Park to those who show up early and wait in line. However, you can also try your luck with the online lottery run by TodayTix.

That's what I did. Thunderstorms were predicted, which might have meant not as many people were trying the lottery that day. In any case, I lucked out and got tickets. The opening of the show was delayed due to rain, and they had to pause the performance once during the play for some of the heavier showers to pass over us. Fortunately, I was dressed appropriately in a slick, rain-proof jacket. (Hint: You might want to do the same.)

These days, you have to announce whether or not the audience can take pictures. The Public told us we could take photos before the show, but not after the play started, so before any ado began, I snapped this picture of the set, designed by Beowulf Boritt. As you can see, this production sets the play in an imagined near future, when democracy is in danger during a hypothetical future election. The banner on Leonato's house proclaims "Stacey Abrams 2020" in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact Stacey Abrams seems to be one of the few Democrats not running for President in 2020.

In my opinion, the show's politics seemed to be layered on top of the play rather than being integral to the piece. Director Kenny Leon said in a program note that Much Ado About Nothing is "a play in which love wins, and in our world today if love is winning, it doesn't matter how much hate is around us: we're still going to laugh and we're still going to love." This came through in the production, particularly during a quite moving closing sequence. Still, for most of the play, the emphasis was on the laughter and the love.

For that, chief credit belongs to the play's Beatrice and Benedick. Television star Danielle Brooks is a sassy, spirited Beatrice, but she plays her character with enough variety to prevent her broad style of humor from ever becoming just shtick. This Beatrice shows off her wit for her friends, but also harbors powerful feelings beneath the facade she's constructed for herself. Grantham Coleman, who plays Benedick, isn't nearly as well known to audiences, but hopefully this role will change that. His comic acting is a jewel and deserves to be on Broadway.

Leading the supporting cast is Chuck Cooper, a veteran actor I remember fondly for his performance in the short-lived musical Amazing Grace, but who won his Tony Award in Cy Coleman's The Life. Cooper plays Leonato, the pater familias in the show. He grounds the world of the play, providing its moral center, which is why it is downright frightening when that moral center turns violently on his own daughter, Hero (played here by Margaret Odette). Leonato's reconciliation with his daughter is often glossed over in performance, but in this production it became a moment of transcendental forgiveness. It was beautiful.

Much Ado About Nothing contains a number of songs, and these were very freely adapted and arranged by composer Jason Michael Webb, who also did the arrangements for Choir Boy on Broadway. You won't hear Shakespeare's "Sigh No More, Ladies" but instead a new, modern song that matches its tone and mood almost completely.

Unfortunately, the show closes Sunday night, so if you haven't seen it yet, make sure you do soon!