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A CurtainUp California Review
Much Ado About Nothing

I'm actually glad that it's not the first Shakespeare that I'm tackling here. Love's Labour's Lost was less intimidating in some ways because it's less well known. Much Ado is so beloved that I feel like I have a very precious jewel that I have to take care of and present as beautifully as possible. — Director Kathleen Marshall
Michael Hayden and Sara Topham (Photo by Jim Cox)
The bad guy plays the violin.

It happens at the end and it's out of nowhere, but no, that's not a spoiler. In this presentation, Don John the bastard brother, the rotter who has spent the first four acts supplying the "ado" of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, is brought back in chains. Punishment may well await him, but first there's a closing number to bring home and Manoel Felciano (whose previous villainy is rendered up with relish enough to cover four Vienna sausages) joins the band with equal gusto. Felciano is up on the palazzo's second floor balcony with the musicians. Below, the rest of the company dances its way through Stephen Flaherty's up-tempo version of "Sigh no More." Given the brio of the hoofing, that title isn't just a wish. It's positively an order.

Productions with as much fizz and litheness as Kathleen Marshall's staging at San Diego's Old Globe demonstrate why Much Ado remains quite possibly Shakespeare's most unkillable play (Midsummer Night's Dream runs a close second). Granted, you always need a believably bickering Beatrice and Benedick, and if you've got the space to spin some farcical gold out of the tricking of the aforementioned B and B, that helps, too. Marshall's company has it all, and the three-time Tony Award winner, who is known largely for musicals, serves it up on the Globe's Festival stage on some gorgeous scenery and with Cole Porter cranked up in the background.

John Lee Beatty's gorgeous and quite functional set is equal parts playground and paradise. We're in the Italian Riviera sometime between the first two wars. The men, back from battle, pedal up to Leonato's estate on a modified surrey. The ladies slip from swimwear, to tennis duds, to swellegant evening wear (designed by Michael Krass) for dining and revels both inside and out among the fountains and trees. Lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge bathes the estate in moonlight. Small wonder that Don Pedro and his soldiers are so easily persuaded to stay.

The overarching vibe of this venture is amusement, and the giddiness that comes from the realization that "heavens to Betsy! I actually can fall in love." Don Pedro (Michael Boatman), Leonato (Rene Thornton, Jr.) and Claudio (Carlos Angel-Barajas) enjoy the stuffing out of tricking Benedick (Michael Hayden) into believing Beatrice is in love with him. The same holds true for Hero (Morgan Taylor) and Ursula (Larica Schnell) who have Sara Topham's Beatrice snaking her way around a fountain to try to hear the gossip that Benedick is equally smitten with her.

When you get down to it, the comic scenes at the center of Much Ado are structured around the stuff of junior high school gossip &emdash! "guess who likes who!" The stakes of these proceedings (and the ensuing monologs) may change depending on where the actors playing Beatrice and Benedick seem to be in life. The older, sadder or more set-in-their ways the characters are (James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave played the roles together several years back), the greater the impact of their ability to fall in love. For a B and B in their senior years, this could be their last and only chance at companionship.

But Topham and Hayden look to be in their early to mid 40s and their characters aren't in any kind of jeopardy of bachelorhood or spinsterhood. Nor are they seeking such a fate, despite words to the contrary. Sure, Topham's Beatrice talks a good game and Hayden's low- key Benedict can muster the energy to parry the verbal thrusts, but they've clearly been at this route for awhile (the entire company gathers outside to briefly watch their first act bickering). The two actors, both of them pros, are working the Hepburn and Tracey interplay a bit, and if their banter is hiding something deeper, we're not meant to see it. Marshall breaks for intermission with a sweet tableau immediately following Beatrice's "discovery." Topham is below, celebrating with a dance; Hayden is on the terrace, one level up, doing the same as Cole Porter's "Let's do it, Let's Fall in Love" leads us into the break. That's right. Love gives you happy feet.

Things turn a bit darker in the second half as Don John's plot to convince Claudio of Hero's infidelity takes hold, but not for long. Fred Applegate's buffoonish Constable Dogberry is on the case and his riffraff-y watch handles the arrest of Don John's cohorts Borachio (Eric Weiman) and Conrade (Yadira Correa). As they're receiving their instructions, watch members Samantha Sutliff, Jersten Seraile and Jose Martinez provide some great comic oomph and they get a boost from James Newcomb doing double duty as Dogberry's sidekick Verges and Leonato's brother Antonio.

At 13 productions in 83 seasons, Much Ado is the most frequently staged work of Shakespeare in the Old Globe's history (this one marks my fifth). The play is a reliable festival warhorse to trot out for a summer airing. A few of the company members have played this stage before, but there are enough new faces for the endeavor to avoid feeling like old- home week. And with an ace like Marshall and a company like this, it's plenty easy to fall in love with Much Ado all over again.

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Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kathleen Marshall

Cast: Sara Topham, Michael Hayden, Fred Applegate, Michael Boatman, Manoel Felciano, James Newcomb, René Thornton Jr., Carlos Angel-Barajas, Sam Avishay, Nora Carroll, Yadira Correa , Daniel Ian Joeck , Jose Martinez, Renardo Charles Pringle Jr., Larica Schnell, Jersten Seraile, Samantha Sutliff, Morgan Taylor, Wenona Truong, Jared Van Heel, Eric Weiman, Musicians Abigail Grace Allwein and James Michael McHale
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Michael Krass
Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge
Sound Design: Sten Severson
Composer ("Sigh no More"): Stephen Flaherty
Music Director: Abigail Grace Allwein
Fight Director: Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum
Text and Voice Coach: Ursula Meyer
Casting: Tara Rubin Casting/Laura Schutzel
Production Stage Manager: Jess Slocum
Plays through September 16, 2018 at the Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego (619) 234-5622
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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