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A clumsy effort ; Music doesn't work in this update of the bard's 'Much Ado'

Under a cloudless sky on Thursday night, as the sun cast a warm glow over a sea of contented theatergoers lounging on folding chairs and sprawled across blankets, the 34th season of Shakespeare in Delaware Park got off to an idyllic start.

To usher in the summer, Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" received an endearing though somewhat clumsy musical interpretation conceived by director and company founder Saul Elkin.

Elkin set the show, Shakespeare's oft-performed tale of madcap misunderstandings and thwarted lovers, in the period just after World War II. Shakespeare's wit and wordplay periodically pause to allow for musical interludes by the likes of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Norah Jones and, believe it or not, Otis Redding, each meant to deepen the characters' carefully plotted comedic and emotional exploits.

A quick plot breakdown: Claudio (Adam Rath) returns home from a war and promptly falls in love with Hero (Leah Russo). Frenemies Benedick (John Fredo) and Beatrice (Lisa Ludwig) antagonize one another but are eventually set up romantically by their friends. Meanwhile, for no apparent reason other than jealousy, the devious Don John (Tim Newell) plots to put these burgeoning unions asunder. Hilarity, in the form of Sheriff Dogberry (Norman Sham) and others, ensues.

More often than not, at least on opening night, the show's musical punctuation marks served to distract from the material rather than to deepen its meaning. The major exceptions came during the show's more tongue-in-cheek numbers, like George Gershwin's "But Not For Me," charmingly performed by Fredo, Marc Sacco and Rob Dunn and Sham's unexpected delivery of "Respect." Russo's performances, especially on "Willow Weep for Me," were also excellent.

Part of the problem with the musical elements, which on their face seem an inspired idea, lies in their hokey execution, the somewhat pedestrian nature of Kristy Scupp-Cavanag's accompanying choreography and the lack of a proper pit band (beyond Theresa Quinn's occasionally rickety accompaniment) to better complement the actors' voices.

The musical numbers too often feel like afterthoughts, not integral elements. But the time does not go dully by -- far from it, thanks in large part to the gifts of company regulars like Newell and Sham. This stalwart duo, along with the gifted Fredo and Dan Walker (Don Pedro), honor the bard's humorous tale with nuanced, engrossing interpretations.

The rest of the cast, led by the romantic quartet of Fredo, Ludwig, Rath and Russo, make credible attempts to deliver on the promised hilarity of the play's hijinks.

It is the difficult task of outdoor Shakespeare companies to appeal to the masses while honoring the playwright's words and popularizing them for new generations of theatergoers. The challenge is no less steep in comedies than in tragedies.

Shakespeare in Delaware Park has often accomplished this balance with incredible elegance, and other times it has stumbled. This "Much Ado," valiant effort though it is, can't keep up with its director's laudable intent.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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WHAT: "Much Ado About Nothing"    

WHEN: Through July 11(no performances today and July 4)    

WHERE: Shakespeare Hill, Delaware Park    

ADMISSION: Free    

INFO: www.shakespeareindelawarepark.org