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Revamped Hello Hamlet! raises theatrical bar

By Solnick     3/13/08 7:00pm

The pressure of high expectations is a powerful motivator. Gleaned from 40 years of tradition and amidst the bustle of Beer-Bike festivities, this year's production of the original Rice play Hello Hamlet! delivers a polished diamond of a show, jam-packed into two hours of comedic pleasure and Monty Python-like humor. Director Caitlin Miller's attention to detail pays off in a show that is not merely a reproduction of the original script written by George Greanias (Wiess '70) in 1967, but a revamped and edited version, with almost a third of the songs modified to keep the jokes relevant and the audience engaged. While some musicals drag with a large load of song and dance numbers, this Wiess Tabletop Theater production does just the opposite. The fast pace of the show flows seamlessly with the good-humored parodies of famous musical numbers, ranging from Les Misérables to Fiddler on the Roof.

Although familiarity with Broadway classics greatly adds to enjoyment of the musical, the orchestra does the songs justice even for viewers without the nostalgia of a large repertoire. With less than a month of practice, they do a fine job on iconic pieces like "Cellblock Tango" from Chicago and "The Phantom of the Opera" from The Phantom of the Opera.

Baker College junior Payton Odom plays the reluctant hero Hamlet, a whiny, wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time poet who makes a hilarious fuss struggling to find the right words before bursting out into the big song and dance numbers more comfortable for his character. Odom, who is a member of the Rice Philharmonics, has one of those rare male voices as full and strong as the baby grand accompanying them. Like Shakespeare's original Hamlet, who is flittingly indecisive with his actions but dwells on his internal torment in profound monologues, Odom's characterization of Hamlet is similarly hard to pin down and the viewer cannot encapsulate it as easily as the protypically rotten bad guys. Nevertheless, as he jumps from cavalier to prissy, his distinctive lack of heroism is endearing.

Claudius (Wiess College senior James Fox) is a predictably nasty villain, but Fox's nasally sharp voice makes his lines even more deliciously sleazy. Gertrude (Wiess sophomore Carmen Perez) is a Martha Stewart carbon copy with her squeaky clean facade covering the heartlessness that lies beneath. Her voice is one of the standouts of the play, but regrettably, there are not many songs to show it off. If Hello Hamlet! needs any improvement, it is in playing up the actors' singing talents. Many of the lyrics of the larger chorus numbers are inaudible, but the dancing and visual pizzazz, as well as the familiar plot, distract from these flaws.

Rice women may sympathize with Ophelia (Sid Richardson College freshman Christine Gerbode), the overachieving, power-hungry woman who secretly longs for a man to answer the question, "When do I get a hand on my knee?" Sadly, her strong demeanor falls into a nagging series of grimaces and repetitions of "Let's get married!" that destroy the potential for character development.

Two of the most memorable characters are also the two most changed from their original forms. Wiess freshman Adrian Frimpong is a scene-stealer as the ludicrously drunk Polonius stumbling through the stage while delivering his lines and songs with inebriated yet articulate authenticity. Wiess junior Jason Hawley plays a fabulously gay, if politically incorrect, Horatio. His over-the-top acting hits the comedic bull's-eye -- even when he is "dead," his dancing feet still tickle the audience's funny bone. Wiess freshman Joe Dwyer's epically flat voice and barren affect as the messenger create the perfect foil to the other actors' flamboyance. The histrionics of Laertes (Wiess College senior Roque Sanchez) elevate the energy of the performance, especially for the final fight scene.

Besides the delightful acting, many technical aspects of the show buttress the performance. The lights add a special flair of color to dramatic scenes and another dimension of melodrama in the finale, flashing out with each dying character. The costumes, designed by Wiess freshman Robin Richards, follow the main characters' idiosyncrasies well, with Horatio's feminine character in a frilly tunic and goody-two-shoes Laertes in Adidas sneakers. The chorus girls' costumes resemble those of German beer wenches more than they do period wear, but they look professional. With two full-fledged tiers complete with a rolling staircase, the stage is an architectural feat in its own right and well used by the choreographers.

Choreographers Teresa Bayer, a Hanszen College sophomore, and Katelyn Halpern, a junior at the University of Houston, showcase their talent in dance styles ranging from go-go to tap to vaudeville. The act one finale, "Don't Stop Me Now," is one big disco party. The oft-forgotten chorus also deserves credit for executing these ambitious dance numbers.

Hello Hamlet! is a rollicking slapstick with a stunt-double sword fighting scene, non sequiturs and a soap opera-like twist at the end. The absolute levity of this supposed tragedy might have Shakespeare rolling in his grave, but it will have the audience rolling in the aisles. Even if one isn't a perennial fan of college theater, this show is a must-see; that it comes around just once every four years is all the more reason to go.

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