Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Review of "Hamlet the Musical" seen in Prague, Sept. 2005

If you go to see the Kalich theatre’s production of the English version of Jan Ledecky’s Hamlet the Musical, don’t go with the expectation of seeing a version of the play well transposed into song. You’d have better luck finding an accurate retelling of the Gospels in Jesus Christ Superstar. However, what you will get is strong singing, memorable lyrics, and high drama in a well-staged production, all attained with a plot loosely based on Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

Unfortunately, the lack of correlation with the play does bring its share of downfalls. Because of what they left out, none of Hamlet’s madness could come through, and as a result, the plot is set as a straight revenge drama, once Hamlet finally learns of his father’s murder. Also, the changes force the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia to take center stage. While this adds nicely in the way of some very melodic romantic duets, it only serves to heighten her tragedy, at the expense of de-emphasizing his. In focusing more on the love story, the musical also loses out on the philosophy and wit of Shakespeare’s play. Of course, the musical Hair already used the “What a piece of work is man?” speech, but the only direct placement of text in Hamlet the Musical, is of all things, the mawkish advice Polonius gives to his son Laertes. Even the sword-fight becomes something different in Hamlet the Musical, even though everyone still dies in the end.

That said, there are many good reasons to see this play: Even though the music itself verges on simplistic, Ledecky uses it to great effect. One instinctively recalls such 70’s rock operas like JSC, Hair, and then later, Chess, as most of the music is heavy on keyboards and guitars with the belted roof-raising arias now popular in well…every musical. However, Ledecky has also infused chimes, Gregorian chant, vaudeville numbers, and big band sounds reminiscent of the 40’s and 50’s. He also achieves a remarkable effect in the variation of styles; thematically, the musical could belong to the category of musical revue rather than a coherent musical. While this might diminish other musicals, Ledecky has written this to dramatic advantage, as he uses the music to differentiate each of the minor characters, all of who sing in their own particular style.

Hamlet the Musical scores big on the characterization of minor characters. The play opens on the funeral of the murdered King, where Gertrude and Claudius now sing an eerie hymn, both revealing their complicity. In an interesting twist, Ledecky writes Gertrude as glad of her husband’s death, and portrays the relationship between she and Claudius as one of true-love. Polonius, an over-bearing bore in Shakespeare’s play, becomes here a cheesy nightclub lounge act from Vegas—an over-the-top hybrid of Tom Jones and Dean Martin at their best. He almost steals the show, hamming up this portrayal during the rousing number, “He’s Mad!” when trying to convince Claudius of the source of Hamlet’s depression. The show is stolen by the music and performance of Ulric, the gravedigger. After Ophelia’s death, he rises from the stage to a lone piano medley, his gravelly voice suggesting B.B. King, as he and Hamlet pantomime a vaudeville number with skulls and shovels as their hats and canes.

Sebastian Arcelus shines in the title role. Formerly of Broadway’s Rent, he is given ample opportunity from Ledecky’s music to showcase his talent, and he both acts and sings to full measure. Laertes and Ophelia perform equally well, Polonius, as mentioned, makes you laugh through your own embarrassment at how he handles his part. The worst singing came from Ledecky himself, who originated the title role in the Czech version of the same musical. His singing was garbled and incredibly difficult to understand. I originally thought this problem stemmed from a lack of fluency in English, but after the opening-night performance, he spoke quite easily to the audience about the show, translating his own Czech into English as he explained the genesis of his play. I find it unfortunate at best that he didn’t perform well in a role that he himself had written, to music that he himself composed.

The effects and staging blew me away. I’ve seen many productions on Broadway, and grown used to the revolving stage, but the space of Kalich theatre presented something entirely new. The stage itself is very small for a theatre that seats seven hundred, and the set itself is mammoth: a high castle tower that loomed over the stage and nearly into the first few rows of seats. The stage rotated through many of the songs and scenes, giving the impression of an unending labyrinth of rooms, as the actors chased or fought each other up and down twisting staircases, across moats and trenches, and finally on the ramparts of the castle itself, some twenty feet above the stage. The enormity of the set condensed the action in such a way that added another dimension to the production, as it condensed the space and the lives of all the performers in a way that lines from the text could not—forcing the audience to realize that a common fate bound all of these characters to their eventual doom. The best effect of the night I will leave as a surprise for whoever sees this musical; but I’ll mention that I’ve never seen a character plunge into the audience before.

The casting itself produced a few problems. At times, and not always due to the lighting, Hamlet looks older than both Gertrude (his mother), and his stepfather Claudius. While scholars might debate Hamlet’s age, placing him from 19 to even 30, Gertrude is stunningly beautiful, without a wrinkle and could pass for 25 in some of the revealing dresses she wears in the play. Even Polonius sports a thick head of hair and youthful appearance, and with the costumes, could pass for Ophelia’s older brother. I searched the program afterwards to see if Baz Luhrmann did the casting—one can expect photogenic actors, but these people were all young, and beautiful to watch. Did I mention that this was a bad thing in the production? But then again, this is both a musical and Shakespeare, and naturalism, even in appearance, is quickly shown to the door.

Despite a few minor flaws, Hamlet the Musical is sure to entertain. American producers have already picked up the musical, and plan to move it to New York sometime in 2006. A few changes in cast, and better overall singing will help ensure success, as the story and music succeed on their own merit. And despite the faults of this production, the spectacle of Hamlet the Musical is strongly sung to Ledecky’s inventive characterization, and I highly recommend for anyone to see it here.

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