Hamlet! The Musical, Second City, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and Short Shakespeare! “Romeo and Juliet,” Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The high-quality air-conditioning at Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Navy Pier facility would make it easy to spend more than two and a half hours there, but the season of short attention spans is upon us. The revival of Jeff Richmond and Michael Thomas’s Hamlet! The Musical–a bawdy, tongue-in-cheek, irrepressibly goofy adaptation of the tragedy of the melancholy Dane–is well suited to the “find something to do if the line for the Ferris wheel is too long” summer style. It’s loaded with theater in-jokes, tuneful ditties, playful lyrics, wise-ass comedy, and broad slapstick, and this production features a sextet of energetic–in some cases, overbearing or over-the-top–performances, the most effective being Alexandra Billings as a lusty Queen Gertrude and Will Clinger as the wussy Laertes. The other characters include the stage manager from Our Town, Amanda from The Glass Menagerie, and Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol. Don’t ask.
Some of the comic bits have been changed from the first run of Hamlet! six years ago at Improv-Olympic, and some that remain haven’t aged all that well. The mugging and cutesiness can get oppressive, particularly when the jokes are sold too hard, though the show has a dinner-theater polish it didn’t have the first time around. Ultimately it’s a fairly diverting, if unchallenging, 75 minutes of Mad magazine-esque chuckles.
Less explicable and enjoyable is Kim Rubinstein’s greatest-hits approach to Romeo and Juliet, which attempts to stuff 150 minutes of Shakespeare into a 75-minute bag. Seemingly pitched to a high school audience, the adaptation scampers from sword fight to sword fight, from famous soliloquy to lusty embrace to tragic suicide. The performances are all perfectly adequate, but the drama unfolds too quickly to have much impact. The conclusion–a tearjerker if ever there was one–feels oddly perfunctory, and the most vivid things about the production are not the folly of family rivalries or the magic of young love but the fog machines, the garish black leather costumes, and Charles Jolls’s exquisite lighting design. Not the worst way to spend an hour and 15 minutes at Navy Pier, but probably not as memorable as the Ferris wheel. –Adam Langer