I’ve never visited Hartford Stage’s home, but on the basis of the broadly performed Much Ado About Nothing that played there earlier this fall, and which has now settled into the Lansburgh Theatre, I was prepared to swear it had to be a huge playhouse. So much for my intuitive powers. A glance at the company’s Web site reveals the theater to be comparatively intimate—fewer than 400 seats, and only 11 rows deep.

How, then, to explain Mark Lamos’ staging of Much Ado, which is designed with palatial symmetry—heavily balustraded staircases flanking towering pyramid shrubs—and pitched to about Row 25 of the 20-row Lansburgh? Might the director have been seduced by the presence of Broadway’s Karen Ziemba—Tony-winning star of Contact, Chicago, and 42nd Street—into seeing the show in musical comedy terms?

Certainly, he’s emphasized brightness and pageantry in setting the Bard’s tale of insecure lovers and warring wordsmiths on a 1920s estate at which Noel Coward would have felt right at home. Colorfully costumed crowd sequences have the feel of production numbers, from the boisterous arrival of the soldiers at the play’s outset, to the masked ball at which Don Pedro woos Hero in Claudio’s name, to the high-kicking Charleston that ends the evening.

More intimate scenes have the rhythm of duets and quartets—not inappropriately, perhaps, for a show so filled with romantic billing and cooing. Beatrice (Ziemba) and Benedick (Dan Snook) spar as if their zingers had been written for Fred and Ginger, or conceived as alternate lyrics for “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” When Dogberry (Richard Ziman) and the comic constables arrive, you half-expect them to break into a chorus of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”

None of this is either subtle or particularly useful to the story it’s theoretically serving, but it’s colorful and active, and that appears to be all that Lamos is aiming for. Between supervising Riccardo Hernandez’s hanging of brightly hued Japanese lanterns and Sean Curran’s choreographing of festive dances, Lamos doesn’t seem to have had much time to work with the actors on nuance. If he had, he might have discouraged the declamatory impulses of Edwin C. Owens’ Friar and helped Barrett Foa avoid the mugging and posturing that make his Claudio seem less a romantic juvenile than a prep-school Jekyll & Hyde—shy suitor one moment, leering, backslapping frat boy the next.

Other performers fare better. Ziemba’s Beatrice may not be classically shaded, but she lands her punch lines with practiced ease. And if Snook pushes too hard for Benedick’s laughs, he mostly gets them anyway. Kathleen Early’s delicately vulnerable ingenue is pleasant enough that I, for one, hoped she’d dump Claudio and make a play for Peter Rini’s appealingly plain-spoken Pedro. Can’t happen, alas, but they sure dance prettily together, and in this production, that counts for a lot.

Director Tazewell Thompson seems to enjoy creating problems for himself—carving up a monodrama’s single character and doling her lines out to five actors, say, or cluttering up a Spanish tragedy with flamenco guitarists—but he’s rarely found so many ways to trip himself up in a single evening as he has in his current staging of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Fortunately, August Wilson’s recording-studio drama is sturdy enough, and the company’s performances cagey enough, that audiences can still have a rewarding experience at Arena Stage. But why they should have to deal with so many obstacles to suspending disbelief is a mystery.

Start with an unnecessarily tricky set that has two levels when it needs three—and requires actors to ascend a staircase each time they descend to the basement. The first time you see someone do this, you’ll congratulate yourself on being able to puzzle out the missing pieces in designer Donald Eastman’s attractive 1927 recording studio. Ten trips later, though, the Escheresque geometry will likely strike you as merely a nuisance.

Then there’s the matter of casting a musical drama’s blues players with actors who don’t play their instruments. This is probably a necessity, given the demanding, lyrical nature of Wilson’s dialogue, but the director didn’t need to accent the disconnect by facing the piano keyboard out toward the auditorium, making it obvious that Frederick Strother (who gives a strong, evocative performance in other respects) is hardly ever touching the keys during musical numbers.

Nor did Thompson need to add a degree of difficulty to the evening’s climax by making the smallest man onstage a knife-wielding assailant and the largest (who looks as if he’d have no more trouble swatting the little guy away than he would a gnat) his target. Levee, the arrogant, trumpet-playing, jug-band-mocking, next-generation threat to Ma Rainey’s blues queen, needs to be the evening’s menacing, scarily unpredictable wild card, but in the amusingly insinuating person of Gavin Lawrence, he’s more a joker. Even if this diminishment of the character is purposeful—the author, after all, is more in sympathy with Ma’s defense of traditional blues than with Levee’s modernize-and-prosper toadying to a white musical culture that’ll never embrace him—it’s misguided, robbing the evening’s central battles of tension.

That said, Tina Fabrique makes Ma fiercely independent, controlling, and canny about the fights she picks with folks who want to harness and use her to their own ends. Not an overwhelming vocal presence, Fabrique is still plenty forceful once she steps to the mike—enough so that it’s much easier to overlook the air-playing of her backup band in the evening’s second half. KenYatta Rogers makes Ma’s nephew’s quasi-disabling stutter as mortifying as it is amusing. And as the swinging young lover whom Ma is clearly going to have trouble keeping away from men, Kashi-Tara is sexy and flirtatious.

The recording session’s four sidemen bear most of the weight of the evening’s drama and also get to do most of the linguistic soaring when Wilson waxes rhapsodic in the rambling stories for which his plays are justly celebrated. Chief among equals is Strother, whose pianist-philosopher, Toledo, has an anecdote for every occasion and tells them in the same loose, rippling, bluesy style with which he mimes tickling the ivories. As the session’s quietly stubborn bassist, Slow Drag, Clinton Derricks-Carroll establishes that a man of few words can make each one count if he’s adept at comic timing. Hugh Staples plays band leader Cutler as a no-nonsense type who just wants to do the job, pocket a little cash, and head home. And if Lawrence isn’t as commanding as one might wish for a cornetist who boasts that he should have been named Gabriel, he does make the character’s mix of braggadocio and naivete appealing. Timmy Ray James and Hugh Nees are sharp as the blustering white record producer and the toadying white manager who hope to neutralize Ma’s tantrums and get her voice down on vinyl.

So the evening more than gets by at Arena, offering moments of poetry and making Wilson’s points about the racism of the recording industry and the resilience of the African-American artists who tried not to mortgage their souls while working for it. But it’s hardly transcendent, nor as dramatically involving as it could be. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was, remember, the first August Wilson show to click with audiences, the one that whetted the public’s appetite for Fences, The Piano Lesson, and the other seven chapters in Wilson’s hugely ambitious decalogue exploring the experience of African-Americans in the 20th century. Arena’s production only hints at the qualities that made the show such a powerhouse 18 years ago, convincing audiences to sign on for what has turned out to be a richly rewarding journey. Still, those hints are heady reminders of why the future output of no living playwright, save perhaps Tom Stoppard, is more eagerly awaited by theatergoers. CP