The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ starry “Much Ado About Nothing,” in a too-limited run at the Kirk Douglas, never gets a complete handle on the Italianate comedy, but it would be churlish to quibble given the evening’s many delights. A slew of solid performances keep the plot’s stakes high. Better still, the mood set by tunesmiths Lyle Lovett, Brian Joseph and a cadre of impressive bluegrass performers, and reinforced by lighting designer Trevor Norton, couldn’t be more sublime.
Lovett’s musical style, three parts life affirmation to two parts melancholy, is ideally suited to Shakespeare’s rondelay of romantic misunderstanding, which caroms from joy to grief and back again at the drop of a hat — a Stetson in this instance, since this is Steinbeckian “Messina, California” in the never-never period occupied by old Roy Rogers movies, in which everyone behaves as if in a traditional Western while traveling in airplanes and wearing tuxedos.
Whether performing one of his own compositions or something by musical director Joseph or others, Lovett carries unquestioned, calming authority while generously sharing focus with talented bandmates Joseph, Fred Sanders and siblings Sara and Sean Watkins. (Lovett’s few lines as Balthasar are amusingly delivered with the earnest concentration of a freshman drafted into the school play.)
No less than the music, the country star’s sober, seen-it-all demeanor dovetails perfectly with a tale in which willful lovers are systematically deceived, even to the point of a maiden’s feigned death, until a kiss finally purges all pain to the strains of a mandolin.
The most gulled of the group, the usually bland Claudio, is given welcome dash by Ramon De Ocampo, who shouldn’t have much trouble summoning up the right passion given lovely Grace Gummer as his virtuous inamorata. (She channels mama Meryl Streep’s looks, voice and manner as if the Oscar winner herself were living life backward, “Benjamin Button” style.)
The irreplaceable Dakin Matthews, spot on in farcical dither or profound sorrow, sets the tone for the older generation, including a delightful impromptu reunion with a pair of his fellow first-year Juilliard alumni and Acting Company comrades. Jared Sakren brings by-cracky glee to Verges, while David Ogden Stiers’ Dogberry boldly eschews a 400-year tradition of unbearable mugging in favor of easy naturalism, rewarded with double the usual laughs.
Essential to the dramatic impact is Stephen Root’s Don John, sinister enough to make one yearn to see him tackle the bigger classical villains.
Donenberg fails to give “Much Ado” the initial kick of a conquering army’s triumphant return, and much of his blocking, and Julie Arenal’s choreography, are too studied and by-the-book. Tom Irwin’s Benedick, piqued rather than proud, shows no more relish for saucy wordplay than Helen Hunt’s tiny, offhanded Beatrice. With Geoffrey Lower’s muted Don Pedro, there’s quite a void where the main characters should be standing.
But as wizard Norton casts ominous shadows on Douglas Rogers’ grapevine-festooned mansion facade, then precisely charts a progression from haunted night to transcendent day, the second half proceeds with clarity and urgency. Buffoons unmask villains, true love conquers all and Lovett performs his wry ballad “She’s No Lady,” all of which could happily go on forever.