Open Fist Theatre has come up with a winner in their World Premiere production of deLEARious, a Monty Python meets William Shakespeare delight of a musical within a musical within a musical.

Musical # 1: In a Los Angeles office, Phil Swann and Ron West (playing fictionalized versions of themselves) audition girl singers for a new Shakespearean musical they’re writing.

Musical # 2: In 1603 London and Oxford, William Shakespeare is ordered by King James I to “spice up” the translation of the King James Bible while His Majesty works with ghost writer Francis Bacon on Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Musical # 3. In England circa 60 A.D., a king named Lear decides to abdicate the throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia.  (You’ve probably heard of this one before.)

The resulting concoction (with direction and book by the real life West and music and lyrics by the real life Swann and West) is confusing as all get out but so wild and silly and outrageous that this doesn’t matter in the slightest.  Open Fist’s cast prove themselves as expert musical theater performers as they are comic actors, and the show’s many songs are an utterly hummable potpourri of musical styles.

“New King In Town,” sung by King James, Lord Burleigh, Bacon, Shakespeare, and assorted courtiers has a 50s rock sound. “Listen Here, I’m King Lear,” a musical salute to dear old dad, is so catchy that I was already wanting to sing along at first listen.  The dance party-ready “We’re Having A Ball” features the lyric, “Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1499” … and a robot dance!  The bluesy “A Thankless Child” (sung with accompanying jazz hands) maintains that a “A thankless child is bad, and that’s the truth!” (Well, isn’t it?)  There’s also the big ballad “Evil Love,” sung by Dennis (if you don’t recall him from King Lear, see below) and Lear’s conniving daughters Goneril and Regan. (“The love we got was strange, so the love we give is evil.  It’s sweet when it’s sour.”)  Act 1 ends with a rousing full cast production number as the committee translating the Bible sing the showstopping “It’s Gotta Sell” because “Trust me, it’s gotta sell!” 

In Act 2, Edgar and Gloucester belt out the razzmatazz duet “Follow The Blind,” which features these madcap lyrics: “You lost your eyesight. You lost your mind.  You have to be crazy to follow the blind.” (Shakespeare himself couldn’t have said it better.) The translators get another big production number with “Keep It Ambiguous” because after all, “Who will know the difference?”  The men (i.e. Shakespeare, Dennis, Ron, and “Every Other Guy”) get their own testsosterone-charged number, “What’s The Deal With These Chicks?”  And Dennis belts out the power ballad “I Believe.”  (Picture Whitney Houston circa 1986 singing “The one thing I believe in is ME!”)

West’s book, while totally original, is reminiscent of the wacky humor which has made Spamalot such a world-wide hit. King Lear’s Edmund is renamed Dennis because, says King James, “one son EdMUND and one son EdGAR? What are they?  Hillbillies?”, and later the King asks for witches to be added to Lear because (as everybody knows) what’s a play without witches? Two cast members take seats in the front row and shoot water pistols at Lear to simulate his being lashed by a storm. William Shakespeare is reunited with wife Anne Hathaway, royally teed off because one son is dead, hubby won’t let her see his show, and why on earth is he writing a new Bible?  Meanwhile, in the present, a stripper auditions for Phil and Ron’s show because, explains Ron, “We’re going to need dancers!” “But there are no poles in the theater!” protests the more level-headed Phil.  At one point, characters in Lear begin for no reason to speak in Latin. (Fortunately, obliging actors hold up signs with English translations.)  And what would a show be without a catfight? Here, it’s sisters Goneril and Regan who have at it.  

In one of the show’s many running gags, whenever characters in King James’ court talk about football and TV’s Bonanza and the like, causing Phil to wonder how they could possibly know about these things, Ron invariably responds, “Astrologers!” Another running gag is that Ron has slept with every one of the women who audition for his show, each of them singing the absolutely (and deliberately) horrible “Times Like This” (AKA “Kinko’s”).  Yet another running joke concerns the “made up words” which the Bible translators keep inventing, words like “pernicious.” (I didn’t know it was invented for the Bible, did you?)

There’s even occasional audience participation. One audience member in the front row is assigned the recurring role of Messenger, and eventually sentenced to death, and later, another lucky front row spectator gets to hold the sword on which a suicidal Goneril repeatedly impales herself.

All of this is performed by an absolutely sensational cast: Sarah Buster, Parvesh Cheena, Michael Churven, Nicole Disson, Bruce Green, Briga Heelan, Conor Lane, Kerri-Anne Lavin, Scott Palmason, Robyn Roth, Mark Swaner, Joe Zanetti, and of course Swann and West. Each and every one of them is a triple-threat talent, with a special nod to Buster for the Broadway-ready voice she displays in the 50s rock ballad “There’s No Us Or We Now,” sung by Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s wife, not the movie star).

Design elements (set by Jeff G. Rack, lighting by Ellen Monocroussos, costumes by Rosalie Alvarez, and sound by Cricket S. Myers) are first rate, but in deLEARious it’s all about the wild and crazy book, melodic and funny songs, and the stellar performances.  

deLEARious may be a bit too “out there” for audiences who demand sophistication and refinement, but for me it was more fun than a barrel of monkeys (times three). It kept me deLEARious with laughter from beginning to happy end!

Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
August 10, 2008

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