Don’t show up late to Shakespeare Festival/LA’s vibrant new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” now playing outdoors on the plaza of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. You’ll miss the fabulous opening number: the entire cast tearing up the stage to the fierce syncopation of Lionel Hampton’s “Central Avenue Breakdown.”
In this show, Shakespearean lovers do the Lindy Hop when they’re feeling the love, all part of director Ben Donenberg’s swing valentine to the music scene around Central Avenue in 1940s and ‘50s South-Central Los Angeles.
Framed by Fred Duer’s stylized set -- colorful silhouettes of period marquees and storefronts -- characters dance their way in and out of scenes, croon or scat a standard like “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” The aristocrats wear double-breasted pinstripe suits and bias-cut crepe dresses, and a zoot-suited Puck (Anthony Manough) wields a saxophone as well as his love potion No. 9. (Manough leaves the music to the terrific live jazz combo, led by music director Steve Pandis. The musical staging is by Julie Arenal with support from Bonnie Oda Homsey.)
Directors have long been turning Shakespeare’s limber tweak at fools in love into song-laden spectacles. The Victorians super-sized “Midsummer” into a ballet-filled epic with casts of 100 or more; Louis Armstrong starred as Bottom in 1939’s jazz musical adaptation, “Swinging the Dream”; and in 1999, Diane Paulus set the play in a sex-saturated New York club.
These experiments work because dance music expresses the essential agitation of “Midsummer.” Fairy Royals Oberon (the elegant Lester Purry) and Titania (J. Karen Thomas, in full diva glory) are embroiled in a custody battle over a changeling boy, a row so catastrophic even the climate has been adversely affected.
Meanwhile, it’s stormy weather in nearby Athens, where comely young Hermia (Dawn Lyen Gardner) is being forced to choose between a loveless marriage to Demetrius (A.K. Murtadha) or the convent, as Helena (Raina Simone Moore) stands by pining helplessly for Demetrius. Hermia’s true love, Lysander (Christopher Michael Rivera), suggests they make a run for it through the woods to safety -- he has one of those convenient relatives always popping up in classical drama -- and the stage is set for inadvertent hallucinogen intake, partner swapping and one of the best cat fights in Shakespeare.
Because, let’s face it, “Midsummer” is one of Shakespeare’s snarkier comedies -- the fun is consistently had at other people’s expense. As Bottom the Weaver, Geoffrey Owens mines a nice vein of matter-of-fact humor and is supported by sweet goof from Brian Joseph’s Francis Flute and Christopher Neiman’s stuttering Snug the Joiner.
Outdoor Shakespeare tends to veer toward large-print interpretations, and Donenberg’s production could find a little more subtlety without losing any of its verve. Then again, the performers often have to fight to be heard above the roar of police helicopters and nearby freeway traffic. (The production will play in a more tranquil setting, the South Coast Botanic Garden, at the end of July.)
But this outdoor frolic offers some charm, and the jazz setting serves as stylistic helium, lifting an already hyperkinetic comedy to giddy heights.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
Where: Cathedral of Our Lady
of the Angels, 555 W. Temple St.,
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
Price: Free, but call 48 hours in advance for reservations
Contact: (213) 975-9891
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Where: South Coast Botanic Garden, 26300 Crenshaw Blvd., Palos Verdes Peninsula
When: 8 p.m. July 25 to 29
Ends: July 29
Price: $20 to $22