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THEATER BEAT

Musical 'Much Ado' Is Really Something

April 23, 1993|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" certainly is. It's a play that depends on the bright bickering of Benedick and Beatrice and the brief comic relief of the imperturbably dense Dogberry and his minions of the law. As for the rest, it's like something the Bard dashed off to fill a slot in a Globe season.

The same imbalance exists in the new musical version at West Coast Ensemble, but director Tony Tanner's score suits the play well. Updated to the '20s, it has the charm of tapping toes, bathing beauties, cops in the Keystone mode. Apart from a couple of pleasant ballads (Hero's "Too Easy" and Beatrice and Benedick's "Is It Too Late?") most of the tunes advance the action with elan, particularly the spirited Act II opening choral number "Sigh No More, Ladies."

What gives the production its spirit are the briskness of Tanner's direction and the cleverness of his adaptation of period choreographic styles. He knows when to keep the book sections moving, and his rhythms make the dialogue seem almost from the '20s.

Steven Einspahr is a fine Benedick, with a strong affinity for both the musical comedy genre and the Shakespearean dialogue. Vocally, like all the cast, he's completely at home. Claudia Jaffee's exceptional Beatrice, rich in humor and wit, would be at home in any production of the play.

The cheery pomposity of Lee Wessof's Dogberry is also outstanding, his dead seriousness especially effective amid the chaos surrounding him in Richard Israel's proper caricature of a Verges and the stumblebum cops.

Some of the company make more of their roles in this musical milieu than is often made in straight productions. Dan Frank's Claudio is stalwart, if not too quick-witted. David Dollase's Don John, evil incarnate but light enough to be funny, is imaginative.

Tanner isn't satisfied with his '20s sound. He also throws in some amusing satires on Italian opera ("The Marriage," "Which Are the Accusers?"). In Angela Balogh Calin's wealth of period costumes, and under Darren Server's knowledgeable musical direction, the company handles it all with tongue-in-cheek expertise.

* "The Much Ado Musical," West Coast Ensemble, 6240 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends May 30. $17.50; (213) 871-1052. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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