If, as Shakespeare said in The Winter's Tale, ''a sad tale's best for winter,'' a happy story surely suits the summer. And for whiz-bang one-liners, crackerjack banter, and giddy laughs (and a couple of weddings to boot), it's tough to beat the Bard's Much Ado About Nothing, now receiving a masterfully silly (and free!) production in Central Park's open-air Delacorte Theater.
For his first and hopefully not last Shakespeare in the Park run, Tony-winning director Jack O'Brien (The Coast of Utopia, Henry IV, Hairspray) smartly corrals Park vets and comic virtuosi Lily Rabe (American Horror Story) and Hamish Linklater (The Newsroom) as verbal sparring partners/reluctant lovebirds Beatrice and Benedick. O'Brien also recruits John Glover, one of the all-male trio of witches in his Broadway revival of Macbeth last season, to play Leonato, the dignified governor of Messina. And musical theater fans, rejoice: Brian Stokes Mitchell, who's not known as a Shakespearean actor unless you count the Taming of the Shrew-based Kiss Me, Kate, plays Don Pedro, the benevolent Prince of Aragon. Of course, Mitchell ends up singing (there are quite a few songs in Much Ado). That lively music, which makes admirable use of an accordion, was composed by David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, both of which O'Brien directed on Broadway).
The comic stylings of Rabe and Linklater are so fine that you might overlook the play's less-interesting love story between Leonato's daughter, Hero (the slightly bland Ismenia Mendes), and Don Pedro's soldier Claudio (the very bland Jack Cutmore-Scott). Then again, that tends to happen with just about every production of Much Ado. Kate Beckinsale and Robert Sean Leonard made a very attractive pair in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 movie, but all anyone really remembers is Emma Thompson and Branagh teasing and tormenting each other as Beatrice and Benedick. Well, that and the gorgeous Italian countryside setting which John Lee Beatty re-creates quite nicely in Central Park. Just call it Under the Sicilian Sun. A–