The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park productions can be provocative, irritating, enlightening or maddening, but they are always fun. In his new staging of “Much Ado About Nothing” with a cast led by Danielle Brooks, director Kenny Leon (“A Raisin in the Sun,” “American Son”) delivers the fun in a slaphappy, dance-crazy version of Shakespeare’s most likable, if thematically troubling, romantic comedy. (Quick reminder: this is one of those plays in which women are treated cruelly for suspected but unproven sexual infidelity.)
More musically inclined than most productions of this much-performed play, this giddy, crowdpleasing treatment owes a lot to two “Choir Boy” creatives, composer Jason Michael Webb and choreographer Camille A. Brown. Singing and swinging to everything from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” to church gospel hymns, the show is one big party — literally: a party staged at the vine-covered country mansion designed by Beowulf Boritt for the nobleman Leonato (Chuck Cooper, at his most avuncular).
In this modern-day version, the year is 2020, an election year, and according to a prominently displayed campaign banner, Stacey Abrams is running for president. But don’t get your hopes up for any pointed political satire, because aside from some snazzy military uniforms designed by Emilio Sosa, that’s the beginning and the end of the political references.
Popular on Variety
Back in the play proper, Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Margaret Odette), and a young soldier named Claudio (Jeremie Harris) fall in love during a romantic masked ball. With the spirit of love in the air, the friends of Beatrice (feisty Brooks from “Orange Is the New Black”) and Benedick (Grantham Coleman, who cuts a very fine figure) contrive to turn these famously battling lovers into the perfect mates they are meant to be.
To the credit of Leon (and, presumably, vocal coach Kate Wilson), the entire cast does exceptionally well by the Shakespearean language. Brooks and Coleman have the most fun batting around the flirty wordplay, but even those actors playing minor characters seem to relish speaking the blank verse. Only the comic relief players, Dogberry (Lateefah Holder) and company, go too far, overdoing their buffoonish characters and leaning too heavily on the double entendres.
Under the magical spell of theater in the park, no one could raise serious objections to the occasional license taken with the play. With a romcom like “Much Ado” in a setting like the outdoor Delacorte Theater, we’re all groundlings, eating our oranges and laughing our foolish heads off.