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Theater review: Sunny ‘Much Ado’ Keeps Gray Clouds Away

Nashville Shakespeare Festival sings and swings in its new musical adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. It’s a theatrical tonic to what has been a tumultuous summer.

Director Denice Hicks has brought together some top talents – Patrick Waller, Evelyn O’Neal Brush, Jeff Boyet and Martha Wilkinson among others – and the clever music and lyrics of Janet McMahan and David Huntsinger to complement the text of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy. Mix in a 1940’s supper club setting, Pam Atha’s spot-on choreography and other elements and the result has, to borrow from the Bard, “better bettered expectation than you must expect of me to tell you how.”

Well, since it is part of my job to tell you how, I’ll provide more detail. First, some background: As lovers of Shakespeare and musical theater know, adding some tunes to one of the Bard’s stories isn’t a new phenomena; From The Boys From Syracuse to Kiss Me, Kate and later to West Side Story and more recently Illyria (among others) the American musical form and England’s greatest playwright have often gotten married on modern stages.

What’s nice about the score for this adaption is that its sounds mirror the music of the immediate post-World War II era in which Hicks has placed it. The lyrics mix Shakespearean turns of phrase with the kind of wordplay one might find in an MGM musical of the period like the 1945 Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly vehicle Anchors Aweigh. Just the titles give you a clue, from the opening patriotic number “The Boys Are Coming Home” and the “You’re Way Too Wicked to Woo” barb exchange between Benedick (Waller) and Beatrice (Brush) that follows it to the Don John (Brad Brown) reveal in “Plain Dealing Villain” and the attempts of Antonia (Emily Webb) and Ursula (Rachel Woods) to provide a comforting moment in “Nonny Nonny.”

When you’ve got actors like Waller, Wilkinson, Brush, Boyet, Phil Perry and Randall Lancaster (an excellently absurd Dogberry), you know Shakespeare’s words won’t get mangled. They also manage to find a balance between paying homage to 1940s movie (and theater) musicals while still affectionately sending up this-close-to-overacting mannerisms many performers of that era displayed (admittedly by today’s standards).

Stephen Fiske as Claudio and Emily Marie Palmer as Hero are just two of several apprentice company members who shine in this show too, whether for singing or their other abilities. A special shout out goes to Ran Cummings: His particularly nasty Borachio, complete with maniacal high-pitched laugh, is a real treat.

The multi-talented troupe unsurprisingly sings well, since most have enjoyed as much acclaim for their vocals (Waller and Wilkinson especially) as for their acting talents. And the entire cast handles Atha’s athletic and fun-loving period-inspired choreography with great energy and good movement. It’s obvious they’ve worked hard to put the swing into their steps.

Also aiding that swing is the band that resides stage left on the well-designed Leonata’s Supper Club set created by MadeFirst owner Jonathan Hammel. Music Director Benjamin van Diepen tickles the ivories while David Shipps blows his trumpet, Rick Mraz sounds his sax, Tom D’Angelo plays bass and Dennis Palmer lays down the beat on drums.

Who else deserves credit for this sharp show? Well, June Kingsbury’s costumes are as always just right for the character, time and place, as are Aria Durso’s designs for hair and makeup; Anne L. Willingham’s lights hit the right spot in more ways than one; and sound engineer Patrick Lake offers greatly enhanced audio that more often than not beats back the traditional outdoor interruptions of engines in the sky and on the ground.

The entire ensemble appears to have fun with this show. It was certainly fun to watch them on opening night before a storm front passed through Nashville. Here’s hoping Much Ado About Nothing continues to keep those gray clouds away.

Nashville Shakespeare Festival presents a musical adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing at the 25th Annual Shakespeare in the Park through Sept. 16 at Centennial Park’s outdoor band shell (2600 West End Ave.). Performances start at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays and Labor Day (Monday, Sept. 3). Pre-show entertainment starts at 6:30 p.m. (a complete schedule is available at the theater company’s website). Picnics, blankets, chairs and dogs welcome. Food and drink are available for purchase. While admission is free there is a suggested donation of $10 to see the work of this professional troupe. Ten $50 “Royal Box” tickets are available for each performance that offers patrons such amenities as VIP seating and a gourmet picnic. For more information call (615) 255-2273 or visit www.nashvilleshakes.org.

*Photos by Rick Malkin courtesy Rick Malkin Photography and Nashville Shakespeare Festival.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).