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Melancholy Baby

This new musical version of "Hamlet" has come via Chicago and carries with it a whole (fictional) background story. The conceit is that this is a long-lost musical by the legendary songwriting team of Jezba P. Heinsplatt and Arturo DeSelza. The program has copious notes on this, and the musical is introduced by a filmed sequence where theatrical luminaries--including Matthew Broderick and Kitty Carlisle Hart, no less--discuss the merits of the Heinsplatt and DeSelza team. In the second act we are treated to a sampler of past H&D hits as a way of fleshing out that puny "Hamlet" story. While the conceit is not unamusing, it would seem to have drained the creative team of Jeff Richmond and Michael Thomas (jointly credited for the book, music, and lyrics) for the actual task at hand: a "Hamlet" musical. The resulting sophomoric treatment is clumsier than a heavy-handed "Saturday Night Live" sketch?and longer.

"Melancholy Baby" seems to really want to be a collegiate crash course in English and American Lit 101, as it features references not only to Shakespeare, but also to "The Glass Menagerie," "Of Mice and Men," "The Scarlet Letter," and "Our Town." But these pleasing, brief literary bytes are the only hints of any sophistication on the horizon.

As for poor Will, the rest is obviousness. With songs titled "Something Stinks" and "Mama's a Boy's Best Friend," subtlety of any sort is swept offstage--and with it any vestige of wit. The best comedic shots are a few campy showbiz references ("a birthmark in the shape of a high-kicking Mitzi Gaynor"), but these seemed to sail over the heads of the college-age audience.

The creators have given themselves juicy roles: Richmond is a vertically challenged Hamlet (he also directed), and Thomas an oily, over-the-top Claudius. The cast of six performs with great gusto, but only the statuesque Alexandra Billings, as a lip-licking Gertrude, has sufficient style to cut through the dim and dimmer material.

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