NEW YORK – Opera is a powerful mix of drama and classical music, but tastes change and youth hungers for the new. In the 1970s Cliff Jones took a musical leap into rock opera with Rockabye Hamlet and reached Broadway. Last month the Ophelia Theatre Group’s reworked production soared in Astoria.
With inquiries about taking the production on the road, the company’s youth, energy, and talent will not long be confined to humble venues like the Broccoli Theater, which became irrelevant once the band on the left and the actors, who dashed about on-stage, offstage and everywhere, began to work their magic.
The ghost of Hamlet’s dead father, played by Blair Trunzo, terrified the guests and characters alike with his demand his son “avenge my foul and unnatural murder.”
The mood swung dramatically as the youthful theater company poured onstage to sing and dance at the swift wedding of the widowed Queen.
Gertrude, played by Abigail Ludrof, a blonde soprano, caused the audience to wonder if the ghost of Oedipus also haunted Shakespeare and Jones when they wrote of the brooding young prince whose alluring-but-ditzy mom married his uncle a bit too quickly.
The transition from mourning to wedding night was the first hint of the skill with which composer, playwright, musicians and actors handled the devastating shifts of powerful emotions that ultimately left the stage littered with high-born corpses.
Humor provided by Shakespeare and Jones was a crucial salve for the observers of the unfolding catastrophe. The new king gave a drunken noogie on the head of the prince whose brain was already boiling with rage and grief.
Hamlet’s tension was relieved by girlfriend Ophelia, who came to him singing “Hello.” She was played by Samantha Turlington with a sweetness that alternated with intensity before life’s hammer blows shattered her young mind.
Kevin Reed’s portrayal of troubled Hamlet was the play’s dramatic and musical engine.
The rock music drove the drama but wonderful throwbacks to vaudevillian song and dance routines provided the – sometimes macabre – comic relief.
“Something’s Rotten in Denmark,” sung to a calypso beat was a show stopper.
The musical and dramatic ability of all the performers was of a high quality. Regrettably, they cannot all be named here, although Tessy Fairly and Dace McNally played the quirkiest Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on record.
The play-within-the-play devised by Hamlet to “catch the conscience of the king” by portraying his act of regicide caused Claudius to go beserk.
Hamlet had his chance at revenge before the king pulled himself together, but the conflicted prince could not bring himself to stab Claudius on his knees repenting his first crime even as he was contemplating the second.
The music ramped up the tension as Ophelia’s brother Laertes, played by Buddy Pease, raced back from college in a rage singing “gotta kill the guy who killed my father with a knife.” During the fight scene Hamlet fails to persuade Laertes that Claudius is behind all the evil.
Gertrude, knowing just enough to now distrust her new husband, grabs the stage to sing the blues the way only a wronged Queen can.
Questions remain after the shattering final scene. The play ends with Hamlet’s friend Horatio singing the poignant “why did he have to die?” as he surveys the tragic scene in disbelief.
Opheliatheatre.com notes that “Jones’ legendary reimagining of Hamlet was been revised and updated for the 21st Century by Director Pep Speed, Musical Director Ryan Kimble and choreographer Layla Dean,” and lighting designer Christina Watanabe.
The Ophelia Theatre Group was founded in 2003 by Greek-American playwright/producer, Sarah Bennett in her hometown of Lake Elsinore, CA. After four key members moved to New York, Bennett led ten more East in 2011, with many settling in Astoria. Tickets are on sale for the 2014-2015 seasons.