The regal comic traditions of “Monty Python”, “Mel Brooks”, “South Park”—and yes, even the ol’ Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon himself, are met, matched and multiplied when tragedy collides headlong into hilarity, leading to William Shakespeare’s epic tragedy “King Lear” even getting a “happy” ending, as the “Open Fist Theatre Company” in Los Angeles California revives it’s hit production of “DeLEARious”! The award-winning musical comedy from the creative minds of Second City’s Ron West and Composer Phil Swann, “DeLEARious” features a Book, Music and Lyrics by Swann and West (loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s classic.) Conferred as a zany play-within-a-play, this new production is directed by Ron West (who’s also featured in the cast) with musical direction by Jan Roper (who is too!) Admittedly, one of ‘The Bard’s” more eccentric and intricate “Tragedy” plays, this new musical version sets out to explore in a manner most madcap, why this might be by examining a bit of what went on behind-the-scenes over the course of its construction. Like other works of the Elizabethan Playwright renowned as the greatest writer England has ever produced (and many say the entire world) which have served as the basis for musicals like “Kiss Me Kate” and “The Boys From Syracuse”, “King Lear” gets a melodic and very funny send-up here.
Told in highly stylized manner, despite much of it being set in the early 1600’s, the costumes reflect those of modern times in which the rest of the story takes place. Writer/Composers West and Swann are writing about “King James I” and “Shakespeare”, while they in turn, are writing about the fabled “King Lear”–famous from British folklore as a monarch “more sinned against than sinning!” The result is three contrasting set-ups running concurrently in three different time periods (centuries apart) which all feed into the larger, over-arching plot: The Story Of “King Lear”. Along the way Swann and West incorporate a few smart nods to other contemporary Broadway Biggies Like “Wicked”, “A Chorus Line”, “Spamalot” and “Rock Of Ages”. Packed with a bevy of witty and tuneful songs and a barrel full of belly-laughs, the cast is comprised of 17 multi-talented performers. Although a piece as elaborate as “King Lear” is most assuredly not the easiest thing to musicalize, nonetheless, the show’s creators have enviably managed to do just that conjuring copious amounts of bold-faced glee, while still staying amazingly true to the source material; by the same token, they present a story you may have presumed you knew in a side-splitting new light, with every scene brimming with songs—many of them quick ‘one-offs”. What’s more, the script is fashioned so it’s usually just a few brief lines before another superlative number is trotted out—with little bits of historic facts thrown in here and there (including “Guy Fawkes” infamous “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605 which was essentially a failed attempt on James I’s life!) Combined, these give the show the feel of a “Shakespearean-themed” revue. To top it all off, they ‘try out’ several endings—including an unlikely, but Broadway-worthy “Happy” finish.
The house lights dim as we hearken back to “Jolly Old England” in the dawning days of the “Jacobean” era. As the ‘story’ opens, all of London Town mourning the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth I while uncertainly welcoming in a brand new King who has ascended to the throne. He’s the Queen’s nephew from Scotland, “King James I”. Upon their preliminary meeting, James tells Shakespeare how he’s long admired the Playwright’s works “especially the early, funny ones” (in a sly reference to Woody Allen’s film classic “Stardust Memories”.) The iconic dramatist tells the King about the new play he’s working on—a contemplative adaptation of the legend of “King Lear”—a king who divided his empire among his daughters: “Regan”, “Goneril” (and their socially grasping husbands) only to have them turn against him, driving their not-so-dear ol’ dad completely mad in the process, while in his vanity he mistakenly believes that his youngest, “Cordelia” is disloyal, until she ultimately proves to be the most valiant and devoted. However, the new monarch may have a more pressing (as far as he’s concerned) project for the noted writer and poet to devote his time to: a new English translation of the Bible which will be made available to the masses (or those who can read anyway.) “I’m something of a visionary King,” he states; “It will be read aloud so I want it to sing!” Their ensuing deal: Shakespeare devotes some time to what will become ‘The King James Bible”, and the King finances the production of “King Lear” (and if Will doesn’t agree, it’s made clear they’ll be no Lear!) Trouble arises though when James decides to become less of a passive patron and more of an active collaborator: “I’m not a writer—but I am a King”, he exults before bringing in “Sir Francis Bacon” (who here is portrayed as a geeky Academic ill-suited to author anything but a mathematical textbook) to help “Ghost Write” the script. Because he, himself was illegitimate, chief among the Regent’s ‘recommended’ “Amendments” to Shakespeare’s text, is expanding the part of “Edmund”, the “Duke Of Gloucester’s” Bastard son, and (at least temporarily) changing his name to “Dennis” (–a development which the character then revels in via the song “My Name Is Dennis”.)
Shortly after, we’re brought back into the here and now where we’re introduced to two of the key ‘dramatist personae’ of this musical: collaborators “Ron” and “Phyllis” who are researching the early 1600’s and how it influenced the creation of the classic drama “King Lear”. It’s also not long before we learn that “Phillis” (who spends most of time at the piano waiting for songs that are yet to be written) has had just about enough of her lazy colleague’s excuses and near-constant womanizing (every lass he meets, he asks to come ‘audition’ for this new show—whether she’s an actress or not!) These cleverly complementary storylines run side by side, while they, themselves are played against the tale of Ol’ King Lear himself. As the first act races to a close, the Bard is fretting that the young King is ruining his attempts at re-telling his vision of the Mad King’s saga. In fact, things become even more dire when, objecting to the re-writes, Shakespeare protests, “I only want what’s best for the story”; “That would be you NOT working on it!” James snaps back. Act Two finds the exiled “Cordelia” now the Queen of France and ready to commit her nation’s troops to the defense of her estranged father (who now roams the white cliffs of Dover railing against the elements.) At the same time, “Dennis” is appointed “Earl Of Gloucester” (after his own father’s banishment.) Meanwhile, Shakespeare has become something of an exile in his own right, sadly returning to Stratford after a year’s absence where he’s confronted by his wife, “Anne Hathaway” (No, not the “Princess Diaries” actress—the lady whom Shakespeare married in 1582!) Frankly, she isn’t at all happy to see him: “Our son died of the plague” she brusquely informs him; “So how are the other kids?” he asks, attempting something vaguely like domesticity. Even if the second half is undeniably more complex in than the first, it definitely gets funnier with each passing scene! Better yet, for his pains (over and above all his loyalty and patience,) before he’s through, our boy ‘Will’ is awarded the title of “Gentleman”—complete with an official “Coat Of Arms” (a very big deal in those days!)
Writer-Director West plays…well, he plays himself basically– “Ron”, the songwriter and librettist striving to pull together a musical based on “King Lear”; but he also plays “Lear” himself in those sequences, on top of appearing as Actor-Theater Owner “James Burbage” (the man believed to have originated the role of “King Lear”) in the historical ones. West has a laudable singing voice which he shows off to its fullest advantage as the befuddled king belting out “Never fear, just adhere to the plan of Old King Lear” as part of his bouncy introductory salvo, “Listen Here, I’m King Lear” (This also constitutes a stylish expository number wherein the geriatric Ruler explains his plan to divide his empire among his deceitful daughters, who for their part counter with “We’re sincere in rever-ing our dear old Dad!” once they hear the news.) This rates as a solid crowd-pleaser early on. He also impresses (again in the guise of “Lear”) with the 11 O’clock anthem of reconciliation between the King and his estranged daughter, “Cordelia”, called “Pray, Do Not Mock Me”. Right beside him much of the time is Musical Director Jan Roper, who is arguably the hardest working person involved with this entire production. Not only is the piano accompanist who’s on stage the entire time, she also plays “Phyllis”, “Ron’s” collaborator in the present-day subplot, who then is pressed into service as “The Doctor” in the “King Lear” storyline. As the ever tolerant “Phyllis”, she also proves what an exalted singer she is as well, with the disarmingly sublime, “What I Really Want To Hear”. Through it all, Roper never delivers a false line or hits a bad note at the piano. Orchestrally speaking, the accompaniment is kept to the piano and a guitar (this latter instrument splendidly played by Ron West) and even an Ocarina at one point; but together they more than meet the show’s melodic requirements.
Likewise, gifted with awesome comic timing, Chase Studinski is a true standout as the slightly ‘fey’ “King James I”. Think of him as seventeenth century Britain’s answer to a still green-behind-the-ears network executive—all power with no insight. When Ol’ Will complains of the changes being made to his script—and particularly the idea of bringing “Bacon” in to ‘fix” it, his Majesty breezes, “Criticizing your work is hard work!” In the alternate reality of the landmark play in question, Studinski also plays “Oswald”–Goneril’s amorous Chief Steward (who’s just as conniving as she is.) Simultaneously, Scott Mosenson makes his own incredible mark as “William Shakespeare” as well as “The Earl Of Gloucester” (father of “Edmund”/”Dennis”) He similarly has a very creditable voice which he repeatedly makes evident with the numerous songs he marshals (or adds immensely to,) in both of his stage incarnations. These include “Christian Brotherhood”, “My Play” and “The Ancient Tests” (“I’m an amazing writer—I’ve got my groove on!” ‘Will” practically gloats of his own ‘improvements” to the old Testament.) Jason Paige also provides remarkable support both as “Edmund” (A.K.A. “Dennis) the scheming ‘Bar Sinister’ son of Gloucester, in addition to depicting “Sir Francis Bacon” (–a man, some scholars have argued, may have had a hand in the authorship of a few of Shakespeare’s plays) It’s in this latter role that he principally gets his biggest laughs, painting the noted scholar as nerdy little would-be scientist with a penchant for making up words. (He even tries to convince the King that the play would be better were it totally spoken in Latin!)
Gina Manziello also hands over a stellar performance as “Cordelia”, the titular King’s one truly devoted offspring (whose dainty head will eventually sport the crown of France.) Her characterization is not dissimilar to Disney’s “Snow White”—charming, gentle-natured and exceedingly pretty. At the other end of the spectrum, she later racks up some hoots and hollers of approval as “Jasmine”—a seedy, if supremely flexible”–stripper “Ron” met at “The Burbank Airport” and asked to come in audition for his impending musical. In both roles she bestows on us her potent soprano voice, which she vibrantly puts into the service of her part in “Listen Here, I’m King Lear” and “Cordelia’s Letter”; then later, with “Jasmine’s” Audition, “Times Like This (A.K.A. Copier At FEDEX)”–a little ditty sung during the “modern” scenes, which all the actresses trying out for the proposed new show are required to take a stab at. She also demonstrates some fairly eye-popping moves here too (It turns out “Jasmine” was once cast in a production of “A Chorus Line” don’tcha know!) Robyn Roth also scores substantially as the bitchy, backbiting “Goneril”. In Act Two she reprises an earlier song–this time re-titled as “It’s Us Versus Them Now” as she talks her gullible hubby into going into battle against the Gallic Armies of her sister “Cordelia”. Matching her machination-for-machination is Rachel Addington as the smarmily sweet (but comparably two-faced,) “Regan”. Post-intermission, she reveals a more tender side as “Ron’s” incipient Girl Friend “Leslie” (–the one who may authentically feel something deeper for him,) with “What I Really Want To Hear”. Both ladies are utterly enchanting in their various characterizations—both the good and the delectably malicious.
Not to be overlooked either is Rama Vallury, seen at the outset as “The Reverend Lancelot Andrewes”—the man officially tasked with overseeing “The King James Bible”, as well Goneril’s husband, the “Duke Of Albany”. Adept with a punch-line or sight-gag, he triumphs leading the Scriptural committee in “Christian Brotherhood”, then subsequently in “Keep It Ambiguous”, a lively chorale interlude with some nifty tongue-twisting lyrics, at which point they all agree that the one way to guarantee future clergy will still have jobs for centuries to come is to leave much of what they’re translating open to interpretation. Lane Allison is still another notable talent (in a cast overflowing with them) as “Anne Hathaway”. You may have to wait until the second half for her initial appearance, but it’s sincerely worth waiting for! Her declamation, “There’s No Us Or We Now” (sung as Hathaway feels her marriage to the Poet and Dramatist is beyond repair,) is a dazzling the second act opener; then she astounds us all over again with “Hell Hath No Fury” (–and oh, can this lady ever sing them!) Chris Farah is also a buoyant and boisterous bundle of ‘fabulousness’ as Lear’s companion, “The Fool” (–and throughout, she exhibits some priceless comedic facial expressions worthy of TV’s “Lucy Ricardo” too!)
The finely tuned (and finely tuneful) ensemble continually come together all through the goings-on, and they too, never fail to surprise and delight every time they do. The opening, “A New King In Town” is just one outstanding example of their collective skills and kicks off the plot with exhilarating bravura, not to mention some terrific harmonizing (along with the slick ‘rap-style’ lyrics that get some ‘five-star’ treatment from the new Sovereign himself!) Another First Act standout is “A Thankless Child (Is Sharper Than A Serpent’s Tooth)”–an old-school blues ballad set to a languid, strutting beat, which is brilliantly conveyed by West as “Lear” as he bitterly bemoans the realization that the daughters he entrusted his Kingdom to are, in reality, as ambitious, grasping, and backstabbing a pair as his worst political opponents could ever be. Continuing in this vein, “Evil Love” is an A-Plus duet between Studinski (in his “Oswald” mode) and the lusty ‘Mistress’ of the manor, “Goneril”, which soon expands into an equally enthralling trio when her sister “Regan” joins in. The full cast also roll up the proverbial rugs and raise the roof ‘en masse’ with “We’re Having A Ball”. The Act One Finale joins all three storylines together in a series of brief, fast-paced songs which all, in due course, ‘gel’ into the larger extravaganza, “It’s Gotta Sell” which, true to its promise, sets a lofty Gold-Medal standard which the entire company achieves! In Act Two, the guys come together to furnish their own share of gargantuan guffaws while giving us their mock lament, “What’s The Deal With These Chicks Here?”, while the finale, “We Never Thought They’d Be A Happy Ending” is yet another rousing group effort celebrating the joys of your standard “And they all lived happily ever after” finish (–which many are likely to actually prefer over the play’s traditional, decidedly darker, denouement immortalized by Shakespeare.)
James Spencer’s scenic design favors a more minimalist touch with chess-piece-like fixtures reminiscent of “Alice Through The Looking Glass”, set against basic black curtains. In the middle, a pair of rich red-velvet draperies frame a white up-stage center screen, with a baby grand piano down stage right; but it’s all wonderfully suitable for illustrating the divergent ‘epochs’ the on-stage happenings unfold in. Moreover, the lighting design by Ellen Monocroussos allows these three plot-lines and the trio of time periods they occur in, to change as quickly as the lighting set-ups do. Furthermore, and her contribution is absolutely indispensable to the climactic “Battle” segment where the French forces (in their attempt to reinstate Lear to his throne) go up against the British troops (led by Regan and Goneril’s husbands.) This ingeniously takes the form of a large-scale shadow show, and almost plays like a deftly choreographed dance—sometimes featuring people behind that expansive center-stage screen, while at others, shadow-puppets showing soldiers and artillery. They even throw in a few farcical ‘anachronistic’ armaments (for the 1600’s anyway) like tanks and machine guns!
A really ripping bit of satire with classical literature leanings, if Shakespeare was indeed correct when he wrote “In jest there is truth” there’s a whole lot of honest laughs currently to be had gratis the players at the “Open Fist Theatre Company”! After “Previewing” from Friday, November 3rd through Thursday, November 9th, “DeLEARious” opened on Friday, November 10th 2017, where it is slated to run through Saturday, December 16th, 2017, at “The Atwater Village Theatre”, located at 3269 Casitas Avenue in Los Angeles, California. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM; Sundays at 3:00 PM (Please note there will be no performance on Thursday November 24th in observation of the Thanksgiving holiday.) Tickets for this engagement may be obtained by calling (323) 882-6912, or on-line by visiting: http://www.openfist.org . “Like” them on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/openfisttheatre .
Productions Stills By Darrett Sanders, Courtesy of “Lucy Pollak Public Relations” and “The Open Fist Theatre Company” (www.Openfist.org) Special Thanks To Lucy Pollak, Abby Salling, Ron West, Jan Roper, And To The Cast And Crew Of “The Open Fist Theatre Company’s” 2017 Production of “DeLEARious” For Making This Story Possible.