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'Much Ado About Nothing' review: Superb cast in unique, must-see production

"Much Ado About Nothing," directed by Kenny Leon,

"Much Ado About Nothing," directed by Kenny Leon, is at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through June 23. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

'Much Ado About Nothing' runs through June 23 at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. For info on obtaining free tickets visit publictheater.org.

Recent Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams appears to be running for president — at least in the Public Theater’s terrific new Shakespeare in the Park production of the crowd-pleasing comedy “Much Ado About Nothing,” in which two prominently positioned “Stacey Abrams 2020” banners hang upon a historic two-story home.

The politics don’t end there. Directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon with an all-black cast led by Danielle Brooks (“Orange is the New Black,” “The Color Purple”), the production is set in an upper-middle-class Georgia community in the immediate future and suggests that the country’s political division has led to some kind of serious internal conflict — or perhaps even a civil war.

In the play, a group of soldiers descend upon the rich country estate of Leonato. The fighters include the sincere Claudio, whose impending marriage to Leonato’s daughter, Hero, is threatened by a malicious bit of slander, and the biting Benedick, who has maintained a war of wit and words for years with the equally tart Beatrice.

The muscular and musical staging — which contains multiple R&B songs and dance interludes — begins with a striking mash-up of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and “America the Beautiful,” and is followed by the entrance of the soldiers, who solemnly bear protest signs (“Hate is not a family value,” “I am a person,” “Restore democracy now”). At the play’s end, a wedding is interrupted by an emergency siren, ending the festivities and calling the soldiers back into action.

Out of the many productions of “Much Ado” I have seen over the years (including at Shakespeare in the Park in 2004 and 2014), this one comes closest to successfully balancing the play’s frothy comedy, romance and verbal dexterity with its equally threatening and violent components. The danger outside the community of Messina is reflected in the danger that materializes inside the community during the play.

The mostly young cast is outstanding. As Beatrice, Brooks is full of attitude and vulnerability, and makes exceptional use of her body and voice. Grantham Coleman’s winning Benedick is the equivalent of a strutting goofball and cranky stand-up comic. They are joined by Margaret Odette, a stylish and assured Hero who gives her new husband a much deserved slap; Chuck Cooper, a chill and considerate Leonato; and Lateefah Holder, pepped up as the clueless constable Dogberry.

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