Further evidence that Shakespeare did not actually write all those plays: “Much Ado About Nothing” is clearly derived from the diaries of the mean girls (and boys) at Stratford Middle.
Witness all the mash notes and romantic backstabbing and gossip gone wild that drive this much-loved comedy, which just opened an entirely swoon-worthy staging under the Broadway ace Kathleen Marshall’s direction at the Old Globe.
Honestly, the play’s most famous set piece involves a strenuous effort to get two people who claim they don’t want to be near each other to finally kiss — something that actually happened to me in sixth grade, only with less iambic pentameter.
And when the show’s alpha guys hit the stage of the Globe’s outdoor Davies Festival Theatre, they arrive by bike. Perfect.
“Much Ado,” of course, gets very grown-up very quick. The electric interplay between those sworn frenemies Beatrice (an effortlessly sharp and funny Sara Topham) and Benedick (Michael Hayden, a comic paragon of arrogance knocked off his high horse by love) is actually a secondary thread to the much more bedeviled bond between the dashing young Claudio (Carlos Angel-Barajas) and his sweet fiancee Hero (Morgan Taylor).
She will be declared dead before play’s end, because sometimes Cupid just can’t shoot worth Shinola.
Not to worry, though: There’s much more to that than meets the eye, which is something that can be said of pretty much everything about “Much Ado.” The play is all but obsessed with deception, and particularly with people’s apparent abject eagerness to be duped — something still very much with us more than 400 years after the play premiered.
When Benedick — in the middle of a signature comic sequence that Marshall and her cast pull off masterfully — exults, “This can be no trick!,” he’s talking about an episode that is exactly that.
The upper-crusty bachelor, recently returned to the show’s 1930s Italian Riviera setting from some seemingly very well-appointed war, has just been bamboozled by friends and military compatriots into believing that Beatrice has confessed her love for him. Beatrice will shortly be hornswoggled in a similar manner by her own circle of family and friends, including her cousin Hero.
Both scenes are rendered with winning comic zip, as Benedick and Beatrice reveal themselves to be the world’s worst eavesdroppers: The matchless Topham even has her Beatrice popping bon-bons as if she’s watching a soap opera. She swallows all the fakery with equal aplomb.
Self-delusions take on a much more sinister hue when Claudio, the nobleman Don Pedro (a suave Michael Boatman) and Hero’s father Leonato (regal and passionate René Thornton Jr.) are fished in by a plot to shame Hero.
That nasty scheme is launched by the “bastard” Don John (Manoel Felciano, in magnificent bad-guy mode), the play’s DJ of doom who cues up all kinds of nasty chaos alongside pals Borachio (Eric Weiman) and the posturing, street-talking Conrade (Yadira Correa).
Felciano’s canny and memorable take on the character is much more fun than the usual glowering portrayal — and the actor plays a mean fiddle besides. (Look for him in the splashy finale, which also showcases the three-time Tony Award-winner Marshall’s choreographic savvy.)
The show’s gorgeous pink-villa setting, as designed by John Lee Beatty, is a place you want to step right into, and its inhabitants — in their elegant linens and loungewear (courtesy of costume designer Michael Krass) — are serenaded by everything from Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” to Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” performed in fine style by Abigail Grace Allwein on violin and James Michael McHale on guitar.
The vibe is so easygoing that it spawns a perhaps too laid-back Dogberry (Fred Applegate), the comically bumbling constable who, with his slightly more competent watchpersons, stumbles upon Don John’s plot. It feels as though his character ought to peacock a bit more with misguided pride.
Or maybe it’s just that the play leaves you wanting someone to stick it to Claudio and his fellow tormentors of Hero more forcefully — something “Much Ado” ultimately doesn’t do.
As the Bard laments in the lyrics to his own “Sigh No More,” which are set to a pretty and wistful new melody here by the Broadway composer Stephen Flaherty: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more. Men were deceivers ever.”
‘Much Ado About Nothing’
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, through Sept. 1. Starting Sept 2: 7 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Through Sept. 16.
Where: Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Old Globe, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623