Binge Fringe Magazine

REVIEW: A Cabaret Called Hamlet, Prima La Musica, EdFringe 2023 ★★★☆☆

When you think cabarets: slick, flirty, sexy, glittering spectacles full of red and black. When you think Shakespeare: long speeches, period costumes, swordfights, skulls, and maybe that time in high school when you wondered why you were forced to study all this. Richard Lewis manages to unite both vibes into a sweet, stylish musical feast that maybe reminds you why Shakespeare was worth studying after all.

Lewis started the cabaret alone, playing the piano and showing off his extraordinary skill. After the audience was seated, he introduced his backup singers to the tune of “Two Ladies” from the musical Cabaret (no relation to Shakespeare at all). That set the tone for the creative licence Lewis took in relating songs back to Shakespeare. Some, like selections from West Side Story and The Lion King, both stories directly based on Shakespeare plays, were obvious, but others were a couple leaps away from the Bard and frankly, it was delightful to musically explore just how much of an influence Shakespeare has had on the Western world. From Elton John’s “The King is Dead,” to Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” Richard Lewis played us through musicians who were inspired by Shakespeare in their songwriting, reimagined Shakespeare plays, or even just lightly referenced the Stratford man’s stories. 

Highlights of the Cabaret (for me at least) included a rather tongue-in-cheek synopsis of Hamlet to the tune of Pulp’s “Common People,” and a long take on a Beethoven Concerto that rapidly turned into one pop culture hit after another before returning, again and again, to the Beethoven. Lewis’ explanation for including this latter piece into a Shakespeare Cabaret? Beethoven, Lewis said, is one of the few who has had an influence on music that is similar to Shakespeare’s influence on the spoken word. Tenuous connection, to be sure, but it was an excuse for a sublime exploration of just how, by the stroke of a few rhythm and key changes, Beethoven could be transcribed into so many different pop hits. It was a glorious, wordless demonstration of how artists can influence each other. And isn’t the influence of Shakespeare, whether it’s on other artists, Western culture, or our own personal lives, why he is still so beloved? Richard Lewis managed to bring across this theme of influence throughout the entire cabaret, making it a light-hearted, cheeky celebration of a great poet’s seismic impact.

As a cabaret, the show felt well-grounded, well-performed, and thematically strong. Unfortunately, the performance I attended was marred by some serious technical difficulties, such as missed cues from the sound booth and wrong backing tracks. Lewis took these interruptions with good grace and in his stride: the mark of a true performer. Another critique of mine involves the backup singers, who arguably had stronger voices than Lewis. It felt like their role was just to be smiling, giggling, pretty faces when, with their vocal talents, they could have contributed so much more to the show. But, critiques aside, it was a strong cabaret, take it for all and all. We shall not look upon its like again.

According to its promotional material, A Cabaret Called Hamlet originated during a run of Hamlet starring Sir Ian McKellen which Lewis was involved in. The Cabaret would serve as a “wind down performance” after the gravity of Shakespeare’s play, celebrating the Bard in a much happier, more casual way after staging his magnum opus. I think Shakespeare would have approved.

Recommended Drink: Some fruity cocktail, like a strawberry daiquiri, for the Cabaret bit and something a bit earthier, like a lager, for the Shakespeare bit. Why not have both?

Performances of A Cabaret Called Hamlet have now concluded at EdFringe 2023.

Miriam Trujillo

Miriam is a writer, opera singer, and arts writer living on top of the world in Nome, Alaska. She loves all of the arts but has a special place in her heart for the written word and anything that makes her ugly cry. She writes because she believes that art helps heal the human spirit and inspires people to reach for their full potential. She stans the Fringe for giving voice to diverse, non-establishment artists and can't wait to help make those voices heard!

Festivals: EdFringe (2023-24)
Pronouns: She/Her