Hamlet! The Musical and Other Great Exploitations And Short Shakespeare! A Midsummer Night's Dream, Chicago Shakespeare Theater. A late-night hit in the early 90s at the ImprovOlympic, Jeff Richmond and Michael Thomas's goofy musical parody of Hamlet has been given a second life as a summertime cash cow for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In many ways, the tourist-choked Navy Pier is a natural for this frivolous romp. Certainly the show, coproduced by Second City, is over-the-top, with an anything-for-a-laugh style that fits the pier's carnival atmosphere. Even the cheapest jokes--such as Alexandra Billings's Harvey Korman-like bouts of faked crack-ups--get roars of laughter from an entertainment-hungry audience.
But success does have a price. The show's quieter, more intellectual jokes, most of them delivered by Mick Napier's morose Hamlet, are lost in all the clownish grab-assing. This year's production also seems louder and more frantic for laughs than last year's. Richmond and Thomas have added new material, notably a medley of hits by the fictional writing team of Jezba Heinsplatt and Arturo DeSelza, the fictional authors of Hamlet! The Musical. These often sophisticated parodies of 30s and 40s show tunes are marvelous and make one wish the comedy in the rest of the show were as intelligent, subtle, and stylish.
Almost as eager to please is adapter-director Gary Griffin's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, though through some strange alchemy the production retains its artistic integrity. Part of the praise should go to Griffin, who's managed to pare a nearly three-hour play to 90 minutes without dumbing it down. But his ensemble should share in the glory. Despite the breakneck pace, the players find time to fill their performances with the little touches that turn good shows into great ones. Especially winning is Jason Denuszek's energetic hip-hop take on Puck. Declaiming his lines like a rapper, he still manages to convey the feeling in Shakespeare's poetry.