Now that Lin-Manuel Miranda has rapped a Tony acceptance speech for “In the Heights,” it’s probably time to stop talking about how hip-hop has been gradually bubbling into mainstream theater and consider it fully emerged. In fact, hip-hop now forms a sufficient part of the legit culture that a distinction needs to be acknowledged within the genre — between fully formed original work, like “In the Heights,” and the hip-hop adaptations of classic source materials, like the wildly energetic and likably clever, if emotionally limited, version of “Much Ado About Nothing” called “Funk It Up About Nothin’.”
“Funk It Up” comes from the Q Brothers — that’s JQ and GQ, aliases for Jeffrey and Gregory Qaiyum — who were also involved with this show’s direct predecessor, “The Bomb-itty of Errors.” It’s nothin’ if not a lively entertainment, keeping up a brisk pace for its brief 70-minute running time and effectively condensing Shakespeare’s comedy into what feels like one long, high-octane rap. A talented, bouncy cast of seven, including the Qs, plays all the roles.
Receiving its premiere in the small second space at Chicago Shakespeare (this year’s Tony winner for regional theater), the show transforms royal Don Pedro (Postell Pringle) into a rap star. Instead of warriors returning from battle, Claudio (Jackson Doran) and Benedick (JQ) become members of his “crew,” back from a successful tour. Other than that, it’s surprising how few narrative contortions are needed to give this story a modern twist.
The cleverness of the Qs cannot be questioned — to borrow their own phrase, with some typical associated lewdness, they are “cunning linguists.” They even play smartly with some of the story, transforming Hero (Elizabeth Ledo) from a ditzy puppy-lover to a jaded lover with more of a spine: “I’ve been a good girl, but it doesn’t work,” she sings in one of the most effectively musical pieces of the show, “So I’ma be a bad girl and get that jerk.”
Oddly enough, this show makes the best of the play’s worst stuff and vice versa. If Don Pedro’s evil bastard brother Don John is usually insufficiently motivated and uninteresting, here he’s the most compelling figure onstage, largely because he’s played by the commanding GQ. He gets the title track, where he explains how his villainy stems from his permanent “funk”: “This funk is not a choice, I was born in it./Therefore, the funk I’m in, is without a funkin’ limit.” It’s the beat the audience is most likely to go out, well, is humming the right word?
Alas, the stuff that’s usually best doesn’t work especially well. Dogberry, here called Dingleberry and also played by GQ, becomes a long-haired sheriff with a scantily clad police posse, but the whole show is so filled with goofy Adam Sandler-style humor that this character’s antics actually pale against the rest.
More importantly, the Beatrice and Benedick scenes have their moments of stellar word-jousting but don’t come alive often enough, despite a spunky turn by Ericka Ratcliff as MC Lady B.
It’s pretty clear how this show could go one level deeper. The performers are so busy getting the words out, and the plot condensed so tightly, that the piece refers to heartfelt emotions rather than experiencing them. It all gets a little too mechanical: We can follow the fact that Benedick and Beatrice are fooled into falling in love, but we never really believe they do.
If the Qs thought a bit less about the next sex joke — or gay joke, or pop culture joke — and found some authentic sentiment in the playing, this would be more than just fun. It says something about the challenges of original work versus adaptations: “In the Heights” is all energy and heart, while “Funk It Up” is all energy and cleverness.