BWW Review: Kenny Leon Directs MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING With Georgia Politics On His Mind
If, when the smoke clears on the Democratic Party's selection process, their next nominee for President of the United States turns out to be recent Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, history might point to director Kenny Leon's fun and stylish Shakespeare In The Park production of Much Ado About Nothing as the event that truly kick-started interest.
While The Bard's romantic comedy involves a company of 16th Century soldiers, led by Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, Italy, taking respite from battle at the lavish home of Leonato, the handsome Delacorte mounting has Leonato hosting a 21st Century Don Pedro from Aragon, Georgia. Draped on the handsome brick villa supplied by designer Beowulf Boritt, and displayed before the audience for the entire production, are banners pushing "Stacey Abrams, 2020."
Exactly what form of battle being fought is never specified in Leon's presentation with an all-black company, but one might infer that after our next election, the traditional peaceful transference of power may not have gone very smoothly. The production begins with a lovely, but decidedly tense, a cappella harmony mixing of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" with "America, The Beautiful." When the soldiers arrive, they're not armed with guns, but with protest signs carrying messages such as "Hate Is Not A Family Value" and, most foreboding, "Restore Democracy Now."
Politically-slanted moments serve as bookends to what is essentially a comical romp, although admittedly one with sexist moments that won't sit well with contemporary viewers. When this reviewer attended, audience members appropriately groaned and booed at the more extreme expressions of patriarchal nonsense and cheered when Leon added a physical bit of comeuppance.
Beloved stage veteran Chuck Cooper is all hearty stateliness as Leonato, whose niece, Beatrice has such a cantankerous relationship with the dashing commitment-phobe Benedick, that anyone who witnesses their verbal bouts can tell that they're really mad for each other.
Danielle Brooks is a sensational whirlwind of wise-cracking attitude as Beatrice, sharply hitting every witticism with crack verbal dexterity, occasionally enhanced with a meaningful glance or a fitting bit of physical business.
Grantham Coleman counters with a Benedick who puts on the airs of a smooth playboy to hide his insecurities. Their comical chemistry together is uproarious and, when others plot to bring them together by allowing each to hear rumors of the other's affections, their vulnerable sides are adorably displayed.
The secondary, more troublesome romance involves Beatrice's cousin Hero (Margaret Odette), who is to marry noble Claudio (Jeremie Harris) until he hears rumors of her infidelity. It's hard to root for these two to get back together when, instead of asking her about the accusations, Claudio chooses to publicly humiliate Hero on what would be their wedding day. Odette is so convincing when Hero is emotionally shattered that the automatic assumption of her guilt by the men in attendance is ugly to watch.
One of New York theatre's more accomplished directors, this is Kenny Leon's Delacorte debut, and, highlighted by excellent performances throughout the company, its full of all the energy and poignancy his productions are known for. Get in line early for this one. It's worth the wait.