This production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park works. It sings. It flies. Director Kenny Leon and his fine cast have imbued the production at the Delacorte Theater with a certain style, grace and spirit. Conventions are dropped by the wayside beginning with the casting. The choice of Danielle Brooks, who is, as she puts it, "a plus-sized woman" in the part of the very brave and very sort Beatrice works very well. Pairing her up with the chameleon Grantham Coleman as Benedick makes this romantic couple a very fine match. While the story appears to follow the relationship of Claudio and Hero, it is Beatrice and Benedick who pull the wagon forward.
There is plenty of intrigue, Shakespeare-style, of course. Well-intentioned deception as those who care to push Beatrice and Benedick toward one another. Instant betrayal as Claudio's brother Don John (Hubert Point-Du Jour) decides to destroy his brother's happiness. Chuck Cooper is a regal governor of the land. And for comedy, we have the obligatory motley crew of law enforcement led by the constable Dogberry (Lateefah Holder) and the very funny Tyrone Mitchell Henderson who is given free rein to let both Friar Francis and the sexton lead us all a merry chase indeed.
Both Brooks and Coleman bring a special understanding to the text, lifting it above the strict confines of the page and turning it into a kind of sweet music. Chuck Cooper turns the poetry into dialogue that is a marvel to the ear. Nearly everyone else follows suit. Were they all speaking the exact dialogue? If so - what did they do to make it so their own?
Methinks it is a soupçon of theatre magic. I don't suppose anyone knows exactly how it happens - but we are all grateful when it does. And in the production there is plenty of magic floating about the park.
The only odd aspect of this show is the mixing of design elements: There is a Stacey Abrams 2020 banner, making us think we are in the future. All the men, however, are dressed in ceremonial doublets or formal wear or some street gear. The women also run the sartorial gamut from platform sneakers to fantastic jumpsuits to gowns of delicious invention. So when are we and where? Not clear. In addition, there is an odd twist to the conclusion of the piece as well as the introduction of contemporary music, which is a joy to the ears, but why are they included? All of these become unnecessary and distracting elements, as though Leon felt the need to emphasize the relevance of the piece - when no emphasis is really needed. He already did that with his casting choices and his fine direction.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"What for centuries was merely mild ribaldry now touches hot-button issues: the question of women’s sexual self-rule and the problem of male paranoia passed off as pleasantry. That’s a change this delicious, admirably clear production, directed by Kenny Leon, acknowledges and builds on as it gently but firmly escorts the great comedy into a #MeToo, Black Lives Matter world."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"As much fun as this Much Ado provides, however, it isn’t all a romp. After the climatic and joyous finale, a somber button reminds us that the battle of the sexes and the battle for equality both are far from won."
Raven Snook for Time Out New York
"The production's most amusing scenes are those in which first Benedick and then Beatrice remain in hiding, listening in as their friends plant the seed that their animosity for one another is really just love in disguise. Coleman's physical comedy is a hoot as Benedick squats behind a hedge, struggling to control his impulse to get down to the sweet music of Balthasar (Daniel Croix Henderson), and then leaps behind a pillar and flies up the stairs to hide on the terrace. Brooks is equally hilarious, getting in amongst the audience and scrambling across entire rows while responding with outsize reactions to the news coming from the stage.."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"For one of the play’s weddings, Leon includes a “jump the broom” ceremony, which he said hearkens back to slave times when it was illegal for slaves to get married and they had to create their own practices to complete the nuptials. Leon also highlights the song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” which he said is a classic song featured at African-American funerals and weddings, and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as “The Black National Anthem.” He and choreographer Camille Brown also had the actors perform traditional African dance, hip-hop, jive and modern line dancing onstage."
Mackenzie Nicholls for Variety