In the modest Ukrainian Village of “Kulyenchikov”, “Ignorance isn’t bliss…” That is until a new Schoolmaster from “Moscow” arrives with the ultimate aim of enlightening them all (—and in turn, he may even become a little enlightened along the way.) That’s the launching point of “Musical Fools”–the world premiere musical based on Neil Simon’s 1981 comic fable, “Fools”, which is being presented by “The Open Fist Theatre Company” at “The Atwater Village Theatre” in the Atwater Village area of Los Angeles California. So closely does it stick to Simon’s original work, that the iconic Playwright is even credited with contributing the book and much of the lyrics, with music and additional lyrics by Phil Swann and Ron West. The Direction for this debut production is also by West, with Music Direction by Jan Roper and Choreography by Louisa Kendrick Burton. Up in “Comedy Heaven” it’s a good bet ol’ Neil is looking down and smiling—this amazing new ‘musicalization’ certainly gives him excellent reason to!
Like its satirical source, “Musical Fools” is set in the Czarist Ukraine of 1893, where an idealistic young scholar named “Leon Steponovich Tolchinsky” arrives in the unassuming village of “Kulyenchikov”. Frequently breaking the ‘fourth wall’ to address the audience directly, “Leon” narrates, and provides commentary on the tale at hand. The jazzy opening takes us aboard a train wherein the cast bid “Goodbye To Moscow”—twirling umbrellas to signify sizable ‘forward moving’ locomotive “wheels”; at intervals during the song a guy rushes on across the stage holding various “sign posts” informing us of the towns the ‘train’ is passing through, until our ‘hero’, “Leon” asks the conductor how long until they stop in his intended destination. “We don’t stop,” comes his reply; “You’ve got to jump off!” After this harrowing journey “Leon” comes across a shepherd named “Something, something, Snetsky” (or is it the other way round?) Candidly confiding to this stranger that “I’m a sheep LOSER”, Snetsky goes on to relate how he’s frantically looking for his missing flock before adding portentously: “We’re all stupid here…including me.”
Just how dumb are the villagers? There’s the sluggishly-slow, the naïvely nonsensical, the oppressively-obtuse, the intellectually-inane, the literally-ludicrous, the bureaucratically brainless–and just flat-out stupid. In the number that follows called, “Here In Kulyenchikov”, we officially meet the rest of the town’s dull-witted denizens who dance a lively jig, then summarily inform our hero that “Singing Is Illegal”. The company does convey some terrific harmony in this, their preliminary number though, and the decidedly drollest lines come a mile a minute! (“The Village Idiot is also the town Librarian” they beam with pride.) This is also where we learn that “Leon” is here to be the new schoolmaster—but, curiously, to only ONE pupil: “Sophia”, the lovely but vacuous daughter of the town’s resident Doctor, “Nikolai Zubritsky”. “I’m eager as the pupil who has the right answer” Leon exults of his prospects as a teacher, and the opportunity to at least partially eliminate the epidemic of thick-headedness he’s been met with thus far. What’s more–it won’t be long until Leon considers this singular student as a “test”—if he can get through to her, he can get through to them all!
Once at “Zubritsky’s” domicile, he meets both the doctor and his charming wife “Lenya”, and although the country clinician is fairly likeable, “Tolchinsky” is just as startled to find that the Doctor speciously believes that as Physician he is so naturally adept that he hasn’t even been to Medical school! (“Questions are what you ask when you don’t know the answer!” Zubritsky beams.) Yes, they’re good people but, like the rest of the townsfolk, they’re “dumber than a bump on a log” (–and that’s an insult to the bump!) Through them “Tolchinsky uncovers the reason for this epidemic of idiocy: The village is under a dreadful curse, (or a “Purse” as “Lenya” puts it) rendering every inhabitant several cranial crayons short of a full box. To top it off, they inform “Leon” that the borough’s nearby nobleman, “Count Gregor” holds the populace in abject terror thanks to an age old “curse” his ancestor placed on the entire town 200 years prior. Their ensuing duet thereupon “flashes back” to the year 1691 as the Peasants of Kulyenchikov dance on to sing the story of how they—and their descendants—all met their sorry fate, when we’re introduced to “Casimir, The Bare-Chested”—an attractively earthy, but utterly illiterate farmer who desired the hand of a lovely girl (also named “Sophia”,) but was denied when her father discerned that our shirtless boy was unable to read. Instead, the girl was forced to marry another more ‘intellectually cultivated’ man she did not love, causing the farmer to end it all (as tends to happen a lot in Eastern European literature.) This subsequently triggered Casimir’s father—“Vladimir Yousekevitch” the village’s friendly neighborhood Sorcerer (not to mention Count Gregor’s forefather) to place a curse on the town for their academic arrogance. They end their saga by informing “Leon” that as unfortunate luck would have it, the vile “Count Gregor” actually has the hots for their daughter “Sophia” (–the girl this by-now dumbfounded tutor is there to teach–) and that “Gregor” has even made it a ritual to ‘propose’ to the lass every dog-gone day (to which she ALWAYS refuses!)
When “The Count” appears in due time, he’s playing the mandolin as the stage turns bright red (to match his nifty red velvet blazer and matching red bowtie!) His duet with “Leon”, “You Are My Rival” has the pair seething at one another, even as their confrontation culminates in a pulsating tango twixt the two men before “Gregor” storms off with “You have NOT seen the last of me!” Before the end of the first act though, he does issue a challenge to “Leon”: The curse can only be undone if the new teacher is able to educate “Sophia” (who’s apparently—and coincidentally–some kind of distant relation to that aforementioned “Sophia”.) Oh, one more thing–Leon must raise Sophia’s I.Q. within 24 hours (give or take—they argue over how long a day is,) or he too will lose all of his own learning and will become as moronic as the rest of them. Hearing this, “Leon” becomes a man on a mission. Will he fall victim to the curse, or can he save not only his own grey-matter but the lovely but dim girl he’s been called on to educate (to say nothing of the entire village as well!) The Act Break: “It’s Getting Very Dark” is a downright hoot with even the orchestra getting in on the act—singing from the sidelines that they need a brief respite to regroup, so everyone ‘agrees” to a fifteen minute breather.
Act Two commences with an up-tempo Entr’acte before the cast reconvenes for “Is There Any News?” as a nervous new day dawns in Kulyenchikov. Frustratingly, we also find our budding Professor flummoxed by the task at hand—to recap: make (gasp) “Sophia” smart! Immediately following, Dr. Zubristky and his wife have a swell ‘Hymn” in which they entreat God to even ‘bless himself” (if he’s allowed to do that.) After a bit of keenly-placed ‘Hoodwinkery’ on “Leon’s” part, “He’s One Of Us” is also a warped Vaudevillian-inspired group triumph whither they describe what they think has happened to their short-lived Schoolmaster: “He’s a cake someone left out in the rain! He thinks Russian’s come from Spain!” they crow while ceremoniously crowning his head with a “Dunce Cap”. Further advising him that now, even if an educational position might be beyond his grasp, he’s very well suited for Politics, the group even try performing a kick-line in his honor, but just can’t quite get the moves right let alone find which feet to start on. It’s all short lived though, as it turns out, even if it appears that “Leon” may not be the sharpest tack on the corkboard now, he is just as shrewd as ever (–and true love makes many things possible!)
Soon this brainy bloke realizes that you can’t be cursed (or even “pursed”) if you don’t believe in curses! Moreover, he now sees that “Kulyenchikov” is, in all actuality, suffering from ‘self-inflicted’ fatuousness (or so he tries to explain to “Sophia”.) This leads the couple into a sprightly “Wedding Waltz” (“In Kulyenchikov” we dance BEFORE the wedding,” the townsfolk inform us.) As the cast carol forth their elation at finally being “Un-Fool-ified”, they supply still more magnificent harmonizing before “Leon” gives us a nice “Epilogue” telling how wonderful it became for “Kulyenchikov” and how all the townspeople there fared. (All told, by the end, even the Doctor knows what he’s talking about, so its small surprise to hear that Dr. Zubritsky became so renowned a healer that his services were even called upon by no one less than the Czar!) As for “Leon” and “Sophia”…well, they lived ‘happily ever after’, “Here In Kulyenchikov” (It truly is a “Grand” finale!)
If you’re in the market for a good, old fashioned. “Forget your troubles” kind of musical you’ve hit the jackpot here—so what if it all adds up to lunacy, it’s lovable lunacy! Upon entering, you find that even the pre-curtain music blasted over the auditorium speakers features a selection of Top 40 tunes that all have something to do with “Fool” in the title–such as Aretha Franklin’s “Chain Of Fools”, “Everybody Plays The Fool” by the 70’s pop group, “The Main Ingredient” or even Barbra Streisand’s “What Kind Of Fool”. Writer/Director Ron West and Composer Phil Swann have something of a fortuitous history with the theater—having previously co-authored the musicals “deLEARious” (for which West directed both the 2008 premiere and the 2017 revival,) and “The People Vs. Friar Lawrence” (based on a key character from Shakespeare’s “Romeo And Juliet”.) Perhaps because they’ve infused so much of Simon’s authentic words into them, the lyrics sincerely capture the essence of the “American Theater Hall Of Famer” and “Kennedy Center Honoree” at his quintessential best. Indeed, some of the cleverest lines categorically sneak up on you, while the songs spring logically from the dialogue or situations–and in prime “Melodramatic” style, there’s even a few twists-and-turns on the road the big “Happy Ending” (especially in the second act!) On occasion, Director West also cunningly utilizes cut-outs to delineate supposedly ‘larger’, more ‘cinematic’ movements; but superlative material isn’t the only thing this premiere production can boast—add to it, the strong, enthusiastic cast fueled by the ensemble who themselves have a few delightful turns in the spotlight working primarily as a group. Take for example how over the course of the events we’re witnessing, it becomes obvious (to us anyway) that “Mishkin” the town postman (who, we’re appraised, has never successfully delivered a letter to the correct addressee,) yearns for the “Yenchna” the local Fishwife , motivating him to seek advice from the Magistrate, “Slovich” the Butcher, and “Snetsky” the Shepherd (—the truth is that Mishkin is head-over-heels in love but he’s too out-of-it to realize this!) Either way, it’s a fine excuse for a first-rate quartet which is breezy, fun and fast moving—exhibiting some superb harmony from all those involved. Chalk this up as a definite highpoint of the first half. Their next group endeavor (–there are several,) involves the four in addition to “Yenchna” herself and her cow (or a person dressed-up as her cow,) that is itself bouncy and loaded with tongue-twisting puns—along with more smart choreography to boot: “We face confusion every day; if brains were trains, we’d have slow ones…” they collectively pine. (Think of it as a Russian-esque “Rap Song” as they re-state the premise in a nimble, semi hip-hop manner.) Before the close of Act One, the community “Prayer” from the townspeople is again full of refreshing harmony as a disheartened “Leon” laments his feared potential fate: “If you remember nothing else, remember I loved you so…” he moans to “Sophia”.
Leading all these daffy Dramatis Personae is “Open Fist Theatre Company” member James Byous as “Leon Tolchinsky”. Dashingly handsome with a robust voice and sublime comedic timing, his germinal phrases in “Goodbye Moscow” demonstrate how skilled he is at managing some pretty rapid-fire lyrics. Byous also does a laudable job with “Leon’s” soliloquy-through-song upon meeting “Sophia” warning himself: “She’s your student—so be prudent!” His duet opposite “Sophia”—” I Have, I Did, I Do” (sung a top the ‘balcony” of the Zubritsky manse) concludes with “Sophia” eager to say goodnight so she can get an early start on all that learning she intends to do come sun up: “I must go,” she smiles before toddling off; “I’m going to fall asleep and I’d like to get to bed in time before I do!” They conjure stage and vocal magic once more with their “Math Lesson” –a quick-tempo-ed, bubbly intermezzo, which is a fantastic ‘fit’ for both voices and is a real spirit-lifter here (through it, one might also get the creeping suspicion that our “Sophia” isn’t as bereft of brainpower as we—or she—has been led to believe!) Clare Snodgrass is that ironically-monikered “Sophia (Sophia meaning wisdom) Zubritsky” who is as strikingly lovely as her role is staggeringly vapid. (So too, did we mention that “Sophia’s” fundamental educational goal is to learn how to speak “Rabbit”?) Gifted with a smooth soprano voice that’s portioned out in soul-stirring increments all through the goings on, Ms. Snodgrass instills an invigorating, contemporary flavor to “Sophia’s’ “Wish Song” (“A wish is something you hope for that doesn’t come true” she asserts as brightly as she can muster.) Just as enjoyable is a dreamy mini-ballet phrase that’s also been inserted amidst the bridge of the number. She also scores while singing “Sophia’s” umpteenth refusal of “Count Gregor’s’” marriage proposal, while her verses of “The Me I Could Be” is neatly countered by “Leon” giving us another satisfying sampling of both their substantial vocal talents; in fact, their “balcony” descant, “Someday, Somewhere” genuinely has a nutty kind of sweetness to it. Derek Manson is also a major standout in the most hilarious ways possible as her father, “Dr. Nikolai Zubritsky”. When asked what the meaning of life is, he proclaims: “I think its 12!” Right up there beside him is Robyn Roth as the good doctor’s wife “Lenya” who, opposite Manson, shares their pleasantly exuberant, introductory duet, as Doctor Zubritsky gladly informs “Leon”: “Just having you here has raised my I.Q.!”
Top-of-the-line support is also furnished by those members of the ensemble who make the proceedings really dance and sing as the citizens of “Kulyenchikov”. Among them are: Parvesh Cheena as “Snetsky (–yeah, again …something, something)”, who couldn’t track down a ewe, ram or lamb even if he was the “Big, Bad Wolf”! Perpetually searching for his missing flock keeps this shoddy Shepherd pretty occupied for the entirety of the show (after all, there’s two dozen that have up-and-vanished under his unwatchful eye!) “When you’re going downhill it gets faster at the bottom” he forlornly reminds us at a particularly low point. Meanwhile, Hank Jacobs has a goofy-but-genial demeanor and a canny way with a funny line as “Mishkin” (Never mind “twice”—this Postman can’t even find the door—let alone the doorbell—to ring once!) As the object of his befuddled affections, Cat Davis also makes a splash as “Yenchna”–a Fish-Seller who peddles all kinds of beautiful flowers mistaking them for different kinds of fish; later she’s seen peddling a bucket full of rocks thinking them to be precious jewels, while Beth Robbins also shines as the town’s meticulously off the ball “Magistrate”: “I left home early this morning to tell the doctor I was going to be late to our appointment!” she declares brightly. Although he doesn’t make a formal appearance until almost the close of Act One, Jason Paige makes a formidable “Villain” as the crafty, duplicitous, “Count Gregor Yousekevitch”—the lovelorn last of the Yousekevitch line. After his introduction, the “Count” thoroughly hits his stride post-intermission where, in great musical custom, sings a similarly great tune about how he’ll at last be the real “Hero” of the story and (over and above that,) he HATES wearing that obnoxious red jacket! (Better yet, through such interludes we discover that “Count Gregor” has a pretty cool voice he can lay claim to!)
The fetchingly colorful Scenic Design, by Jan Munroe, is based upon the time-honored visual convention of Ukrainian “Pysanky Painted” Eggs—raw eggs which are decorated with traditional folk designs after being dipped in wax (The term pysanka comes from the verb pysaty, meaning “to Inscribe”, because each vividly colored design isn’t painted on, but written, or inscribed usually with beeswax.) This has several set pieces situated around and at the rear of the playing space, while the four-piece band is placed stage left inside an old-school type, “Band Box”. These are well complimented by the multi-colored Lighting Design by Matt Richter and Mary Keegan, which vibrantly accentuates the multichromatic motif consisting of hot pinks, golds, turquoise and hints of forest green and brown. This kaleidoscopic aestheticism also extends to Mylette Nora’s equally vivacious Costume Designs—all of which are spot-on when it comes to her classic “Turn-Of-The-Century” apparel selections; but rather than giving us just another drab, Slavic peasant-influenced recap of the last road company of “Fiddler On The Roof”, into the mix she’s gone out of her way to throw in numerous splashy hues—as with Dr, Zabritsky’s brassy orange vest, or “Leon’s” navy blue waistcoat with matching blue vest and bold blue-plaid trousers; for the ladies, there’s “Sophia’s” Alice-Blue Tea-gown or her mother’s Gilded floral print shirt-waste with flowing, floor-length skirt—and that’s not even taking into consideration “Snetsky’s” burley white sheep-skin faux-fur outer-vest, or “Count Gregor’s” audacious Fire-engine red ensemble! Well worthy of note too is Tim Labor’s pristine sound design which ensures even sound distribution all around “The Atwater Village Theatre’s” exceptionally expansive auditorium.
A laugh a minute, unabashedly joyful musical celebrating the wisdom of welcoming a touch of silliness into our lives from time to time, “Musical Fools” opened on Saturday, Oct. 12th at “The Atwater Village Theatre”, located at 3269 Casitas Avenue in Atwater Village, Los Angeles, California, where performances will continue through Nov. 17th , 2019. Showtimes are Saturdays at 8:00 PM., Sundays at 4:00 PM, and Mondays (–yes, you read that right–) at 8:00 PM. Reduced price tickets are available for Students and Children 12 and under, while a special “Family Four Pack” price (for two adults and two kids) is available with advance purchase. For reservations and information, call (323) 882-6912 or log onto: www.openfist.org (On-site parking is free.)
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, Ron West, Jan Roper, Louisa Kendrick Burton And To The Cast And Crew Of “The Open Fist Theatre Company’s” 2019 World Premiere Production of “Musical Fools” For Making This Story Possible.