Review: Neil Simon's MUSICAL FOOLS is a Monty Python Version of Fiddler on the Roof Performed by the Original Not Ready for Prime Time Players
Open Fist's clever, hilarious World Premiere musical adaptation of Neil Simon's MUSICAL FOOLS is a hilarious musical adaptation of his play, Fools, with book and lyrics by Simon, and music and lyrics by Phil Swann and Ron West, a veteran comedy genius from Chicago's Second City, who has directed the laugh fest like a Monty Python version of Fiddler on the Roof performed by the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Off-the-wall hysterical choreography by Louisa Kendrick Burton greatly enhances the comedy, with musical direction by Jan Roper often adding in the flavor of Eastern European Klezmer music.
Of course, that makes perfect sense as Neil Simon's MUSICAL FOOLS takes place in 1893 Ukraine, when Leon (Demetris Hartman at the performance I attended, alternate for James Byous), a young tutor looking to make a name for himself, arrives in Kulyenchikov after a harrowing journey by train, only to discover that the village is cursed, rendering every resident as dumb as a bag of rocks.
Or perhaps dumber, thanks to the evil, balalaika-playing Count Gregor (Jason Paige, who steals every scene in which he appears) who rules over the town from is house on the hill. And since he pines for the beautiful Sophia (Clare Snodgrass), who has fallen for Leon as he has her, will Gregor cause Leon to fall victim to the curse? Does that mean he will start wearing his socks over his shoes like the rest of the town? Or perhaps can he save himself and the village too? The real fun, of course, is getting there!
And what a brilliant cast of characters take to the stage to demonstrate their lack of any type of intelligence or even common sense whatsoever, making Leon's task all the more difficult. Starting at the top is the town's Mayor, Dr. Zubritsky (scene stealer Derek Manson) and his wife Lenya (Robin Roth), bedazzled in the most elegant costumes, particularly sleepwear, courtesy of designer Mylette Nora. These two can't even remember what day it is, let alone how to take care of their daughter Sophia or rule the town.
The town's Magistrate (Beth Robbins) frequently passes through announcing the time, even though none of the town's residents seem to understand its meaning. The rest of the talented actors (Parvesh Cheena, Hank Jacobs, Brendan Mulally, Cat Davis, Jack Sharpe, Diane Renee, Bolor Saruul, Juliane Hagn, and Nina Genatossio whose befuddled cow generated tons of laughter) take on many roles, from a shepherd who cannot remember where he left his sheep or what he is supposed to do with them, the librarian who has forgotten how to read, the butcher who is a vegetarian, the mailman who tells everyone to just take what they want from his sack, and the town's merchant who sells flowers as fish and umbrellas and rocks as jewelry.
It's very apparent from the joy displaced during every scene, especially the big production numbers, that the fun on stage is real and born from deep within the hearts of all involved in the show. This is especially true when props get thrown out imaginary windows and get caught by passing cast members, the slam of an imaginary door is heard perfectly matched from backstage, or the passing towns from the train are told via fight round cards carried across the stage as the conductor announces them.
Ed Martel conducted and played keyboards at the performance I attended, with Ross Wright on Bass, Adam Snow on drums, and Matt Germaine on reeds/flute. These wondrous four filled the theater with such expressive music and merriment it was easy to want to join in the fun onstage. In fact, a few lucky souls were invited up to do just that!
The colorful scenic art on Jan Munroe's set design, exquisitely lit by designers Matt Richter and Mary Keegan with flashes of lighting and rolling thunder perfectly matched by sound designer Tim Labor, is inspired by the visual tradition of Ukrainian Pysanky Eggs, with all scenic units and miniatures on sale and available at the end of the production. All proceeds benefit the Open Fist Theatre Company. Please contact Amanda Weier at firstname.lastname@example.org for pricing.
Being of Ukrainian descent myself, it certainly was easy to see these clueless souls as long-lost relatives, dealing with life as best they could in less than perfect circumstances. Perhaps that's why I laughed so much during all their antics, or perhaps director Ron West just instinctively knows how to mine the comic spirit in all of us to forget our troubles and just laugh at the ridiculous nature of life itself. Whatever the case, I guarantee you will laugh uncontrollably throughout, especially at the best intermission break announcement song I have ever heard in any production!
Neil Simon's MUSICAL FOOLS, presented by Open Fist Theatre Company and produced by Martha Demson, artistic director, invites you along for the ride to what the residents call their "Loser Land" through December 1 on Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.: Nov. 16, Nov. 23, Nov. 30; Sundays at 4 p.m.: Nov. 17, Nov. 24, Dec. 1; and Mondays at 8 p.m.: Nov. 18, Nov. 25, at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90039. (FREE parking in the Atwater Xing lot one block south of the theater) Tickets run $10-$35, available by calling (323) 882-6912 or online at www.openfist.org MUSICAL FOOLS is family friendly, appropriate for ages 8 and up.
Photo credit: Darrett Sanders