Kids who see “Fools in Love” may start demanding changeling boys of their very own. With this “re-imagining” of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the Millennium Talent Group wants children to be Shakespeare fans, so they crank up the slapstick, pass out some fairy wings and occasionally stop for a doo-wop song.
OK, so the chorus of doo-wop singers is more a treat for grown-ups who recognize hits from Frankie Lymon or the Shangri-Las. But the parent-pleasing gimmick has another purpose, altering tunes like “All I Have to Do Is Dream” so they clarify the various levels of the plot. No matter how old they are, anyone might need some sing-along help in sorting out Lysander’s lovers or the politics of fairyland. (It doesn’t hurt that the singers deliver their recaps with stellar harmonies.)
To the production’s great credit, the quest for clarity has not resulted in dumbing-down. Yes, the 1950s setting inspires cliche design, like a soda shop set and costumes straight out of “Grease.” But there among the poodle skirts are Shakespeare’s original words. The complexity of the language gives substance to the fizzy milieu.
Across the board, the massive cast captures the sense of their Elizabethan lines. Most use the text to shape their characters — hitting active words, using a wide vocal range — which makes the show a more comprehensible listen than many “sophisticated” stabs at the Bard.
Director Sarah Rosenberg crafts high-energy scenes that are nevertheless focused. She gets her best ensemble work from the four lovers, whose strong acting choices carve clear journeys through the partner-swapping forest. This is especially true of Breeda Wool’s Helena, played as a lovelorn klutz on the verge of a breakdown.
For sheer solo star power, however, no one tops Ryan Knowles as Bottom. The dexterity in his voice is astonishing, gliding from a twitter to wall-shattering thunder. His body contorts into countless postures of clownish arrogance without signs of effort. His fluidity and precision make him captivating to watch, suggesting he has a major career in the making.
First, though, he should look to his fellow actors for lessons in sharing the stage. The donkey-head scenes especially have no leash, and Knowles’ unchecked energy threatens to blow his co-stars through the aisles. Rosenberg, too, might have corralled her star. Hopefully his next director will give his instincts a better mold.
Still, “Fools in Love” can charm its way past the overkill. The show should leave kids hungry for Shakespeare, since he’s clearly a writer who can make you laugh and even start your parents singing some old tune.