Tina Landau’s entertaining, loud, pop/rock production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is self-consciously yoo-hoo-ing at Broadway. Trying for a breakout genre — the highbrow musical — this show provides plenty of fun but fails to satisfyingly deliver the play. GrooveLily’s original music and onstage performance on keyboard, drums and violin, in basic I-just-woke-up rehearsal dress, creates an odd contrast to both the ultra-stylish, all-white court of Theseus and Hippolyta and the near-naked, mostly male splendor of fairyland.
Almost everyone in the cast must be able to sing. They also must be able play an instrument, climb a pole, tumble or dance. And they must be able to handle Shakespearean language with ease and look good in their underwear. At the same time.
What they don’t have to be able to do, apparently, is the most fundamental task of any stage actor: Make themselves heard. Everyone wears headmics (which occasionally hum and buzz or fade in and out), required for the frequent singing and the huge production numbers. The song that ends act one, “All Shall Be Well,” is a knockout, but it’s either the wrong vehicle or the wrong audience: What was intended to bring the house down was met with polite applause. Most of the lyrics are Shakespeare’s lines, but the words — sometimes sung by the entire cast — are often difficult to understand over the loud music.
Plus, with the many very hunky fairies wearing only briefs and construction-worker belts, covered with glitter gel, and flying up and down an industrial forest of metal poles, it’s hard to keep your mind on the poetry anyway.
Everyone performs front and center, and characters are drawn as though for a very classy comicbook. Guy Adkins is an amazing Puck — weirdly pale, sexy, playful (wait ’til you see him with Hermia’s underwear on his head) and mildly menacing — with a terrific singing voice. Ellen McLaughlin is oddly grim throughout, more Hippolyta than Titania, and Jay Goede provides a solid but uninteresting Oberon.
The young couples look like college students — clothing, walks, gestures — so there are none of the charming moments of youthful departure from decorous behavior. Brenda Withers brings a lively winsomeness to Helena, but the others are pretty much standard campus issue.
There is lots of gender-bending to add to the play’s theme of transformation, with Bottom being played by a chunky woman (the crowd-pleasing Lea DeLaria), who first plays Titania’s donkey and then Pyramus as an Elvis impersonation, and Flute (Demond Green) who plays Thisbe as a black man in a long blond wig, high heels and miniskirt, singing — quite adorably — in a falsetto, with muscles bulging.
Landau’s direction misses the delicacy and the what-fools-these-mortals-be sweetness of the play, opting instead for the distancing, spectacular approach. The underlying assumption seems to be that we are all sick of Shakespeare, and those who aren’t — young audiences — need to be sold on great dramatic literature by making it seem familiar rather than rare and fine.
With the huge loss of the unamplified human voice, it’s hard not to see this production as another step in the ongoing commercialization of the theater aesthetic. If they mic Shakespeare at the McCarter, one of the pre-eminent regional theaters in the country, well ….
The production transfers to its co-producing house, the Paper Mill, April 19-May 21.