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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
These Paper Bullets
And here's a novelty. Perhaps the biggest source of enchantment comes from what would traditionally be an unlikely corner. A playgoer could attend 20 incarnations of Much Ado and never see the falsely slandered ingenue Hero walk off with the show. In Gay's production, amidst the mop tops and daft cops, amidst Jessica Ford's go-go outfits and some cool tunes, a Hero emerges. Miss Ariana Venturi, I can express no greater eloquence than to repeat the words of the aforementioned Mr. Powers: "Yeah, baby!"
Venturi plays Higgy, the daughter and heir to hotel bigwig Leo Messina (Nick Ullett). Leo has given over a floor of his Messina high rise to the Quartos, who have just returned from a world tour. The hottest thing to hit the airwaves since, well, since no one, the Quartos will use the space to cut their next album, party like crazy. They'll also advance the course of true love for the band's frontman Claude (Damon Daunno), who has fallen for Higgy practically at first sight. In addition to being an heiress and a model for her cousin Bea's (Nicole Parker) clothing line, Higgy is a bit of a druggie and a serious drama queen. But she's also irresistible.
Also ready for love, though he doesn't yet realize it, is the Quartos' commitment-phobic guitarist Ben (Justin Kirk) who had a previous fling with Bea. Now Bea and Ben do nothing but snipe at each other, prompting Quartos leader Pedro (James Barry), Higgy, Leo and company to trick them into falling in love. Don Best (Adam O'Byrne), Pedro's embittered half brother is still pissed over being ousted from the band and looks to sabotage the Higgy-Claude union.
All of these proceedings are being watched over covertly by the buffoonish police constable Mr. Berry (Greg Stuhr) who has a bunch of spiffy new gadgets and fancies himself James Bond. Scotland Yard reckons that the Quartos are contemporary England's chief threat to the downfall of today's youth. And given the evidence they collect, they may be on to something.
Playwright Jones clearly loves his Elizabethan source material as much as he enjoys mucking about in go-go Britannia with all its spoofable craziness. Shakespearean dialog is spliced into the proceedings and mixed with period friendly lingo without jarring effect. When wooing needs to take place, for example, it is often accomplished via a song like the trippy ballad "Baby Blue" or the late hour "Regretfully Yours." Using Beatles-era sounds as his base, Armstrong goes against easy pop, darkening and deepening the mood. Kirk, Daunno, Barry and Lucas Papaelias perform the songs live using orchestrator Tom Kitt's arrangements.
And don't those Quartos look so very Fab Four with their mop top hairdos and matching mod suits. With Bea as a trend-setting lady of fashion and Higgy the model whose image graces the side of every building, costume designer Jessica Ford is given plenty of license for brashness. Throw in Nicholas Hussong's projections and a highly functional turntable set by Michael Yeargan and the results are delicious.
Jones generally follows Much Ado's plot faithfully, occasionally deviating and riffing for comedic purposes. Between Beatles puns and digs at bardisms, there is plenty of opportunity for nudge-nudge humor. Kirk, whose Ben is perpetually in a cocky slouch, seems to take particular ironic satisfaction in any fourth-wall breaking satire. He excels equally in lover boy mode with Parker's Bea and as the philosophizing former womanizer brought to domesticity. For sheer comedy, it's tough to top the interplay between Stuhr's Constable Berry, Brad Heberlee as Berry's smarter subordinate Mr. Urges, and Tony Manna as Urges's co-investigator Mr. Cake.
Even amidst this much zaniness, nobody is taking this show away from Venturi. Bouncing Higgy from being outright adorable to roaring out a comic speech that is the motherlode of pre-wedding jitters, Venturi never lets us forget that there is plenty at stake in this bird's life even if the plot indicates otherwise. What a "Hero" she is!
Editor's Note: This is stop 2 of this zany show. We've already had a chance to cover it in Connecticut and will cover it again when it comes to the Atlantic Theater in New York from Nov 20, 2015 to Jan 10, 2016