Much ado should be made of the new up-to-the-moment version of “Much Ado About Nothing” that opened Tuesday at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater as part of the Public’s free Shakespeare in the Park program. Finally, Kenny Leon has delivered a modern-dress version of a Shakespeare classic that retains all of the Bard’s poetry and, in this case, comic brio.
The setting is modern-day Georgia, complete with peach trees and a brick estate with a “Stacey Abrams 2020” sign on prominent display. The all-black cast wields cellphones, vape pens and even brings out a broom for the first-act wedding ceremony. But the modern touches never feel forced, and having Danielle Brooks belt out Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” at the beginning and end of the show offers a fitting frame for how this show remains relevant to all audiences centuries after its first performance.
Brooks, perhaps best known for her award-winning work on “Orange Is the New Black,” is a revelation here as Beatrice, the sassy and romance-shy woman who would rather spar with men than accept their advances. And she is well-matched with Grantham Coleman, whose Benedick must also be nudged into a love match when he has been much more comfortable engaging in a skirmish of wit.
Both actors succeed in bringing a modern cadence to the Bard’s lines, with Brooks even emphasizing the final syllable of Benedick’s name to taunt her reluctant blond-haired suitor. But unlike some modern-day revivals, they do so without losing any of the lyricism or intention of the original text. They amplify, rather than adapt.
Leon’s entire cast is similarly gifted in recasting familiar material through a fresh lens, whether it is Margaret Odette’s Hero sparking genuine outrage at being falsely accused of infidelity by her fiancé, Claudio (Jeremie Harris), or Chuck Cooper portraying her father (and Beatrice’s uncle) with his trademark resigned bemusement.
Jason Michael Webb’s new compositions offer a similar boost, whether it’s the sitcom-style bumpers between scenes or the playful wedding-scene dance numbers (choreography by Camille A. Brown) or the R&B spin he injects into the play’s songs, including one that Daniel Croix Henderson’s Balthasar delivers on guitar with pop-idol soulfulness.
Leon even shows restraint in the one scene that might seem to cry out for a modern gaze: when the evil Don Pedro (Billy Eugene Jones) schemes for Claudio to falsely accuse Hero by arranging for her companion Margaret (Olivia Washington) to be mistaken for Hero as she hooks up with another man. Instead of having the guys record the scene of mistaken identity on cellphones, or in the second-story windows of Beowulf Boritt’s impressive set, the scene occurs entirely off stage.
Unfortunately, that shift in emphasis gives greater weight to the malaprop-prone night watchman Dogberry (Lateefah Holder) and her crew, who expose the plot but whose broader comedic style feels even more out of place in a production that consistently reaches for loftier laugh lines.
Leon is on surer footing when he recasts what happens to the show’s women. While the Hero-Margaret confusion is still crucial to the plot in the second act, and the denouement of the comedy, Margaret mostly escapes the slut-shaming of most revivals. And in this version, the false accusation against Hero perhaps carries even more of a sting of injustice, especially to a post-#MeToo audience primed to credit women’s testimony.
The guys can’t just pull a Kobe to get out of this jam — even if the former NBA star is referenced earlier in the show. Indeed, what makes Leon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” sing is that it remains exceeding wise, thoughtful in its updating of the Bard while never losing sight of the show’s genuine comedic heart. And at its center, there is that star-making, sharp-tongued turn by the radiant Danielle Brooks.