deLEARious, Phil Swann and Ron West’s deliciously clever, delightfully tuneful musical within a musical within a musical is back for a 9th-anniversary Open Fist Theatre Company revival guaranteed to tickle musical theater buffs and Shakespeare aficionados alike.

Musical 1.0 has songwriting partners Ron (Brendan Hunt) and Phyllis (Jan Roper, who doubles splendidly as musical director/accompanist ) auditioning performers for their upcoming musicalization of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Musical 2.0 takes us back to the year 1603 where the newly crowned King James I (Chase Studinski) seems far more interested in having the illustrious Bard join the team of Biblical scholars translating Testaments Old and New into 17th-century English than he is in Shakespeare’s Lear-in-progress.

Musical 3.0 is the one Ron and Phyl are writing, the tale of a soon-to-be-crazy King (Hunt’s “Ron” stepping in as Lear) and the daughters (Robyn Roth as Goneril, Rachel Addington as Regan, and Gina Manziello as Cordelia) who are driving him that way.

Segueing from show to show to show like a three-way ping-pong match, deLEARious can get a tad hard to follow when Lear and his court take centerstage (a synopsis insert would definitely help Shakespeare-unsavvy audience members), but this matters hardly at all, so wild and silly and downright fun are the three tales Swann and West have to tell in an infectiously hummable potpourri of musical styles.

Present day Ron and Phyllis have auditioner after auditioner belt out Phyl’s ex-husband’s “Times Like This” (“In times like this I wish I worked in Fedex. It used to be called Kinkos but not now.”) as Ron explains away Phyllis’s script concerns. (How would King Lear know about football and Vietnam? Astrologers.)

Meanwhile back in 1603, King James The Effete finds himself not all that pleased with Shakespeare’s latest. For instance, there’s not enough of the bastard son Edmund. (“I’m a bastard,” declares His Majesty. “I stand up for bastards.”) And the King finds it “hillbilly” to name the brothers Edgar and Edmund when either Dennis or Whisky Pete would be a far better name for the illegitimate one. (Shakespeare settles on the latter.)

Like the play Will Shakes hopes will be his next theatrical masterpiece, Ron and Phyl’s musical has youngest daughter Cordelia’s refusing to flatter dear old dad (“Father, I will not spread the jam so thick.”) in the show-stopping “Listen Here, I’m King Lear,” Edgar (Micah Watterson), aka the legitimate but scheming heir to Gloucester convincing Dennis (Jason Paige) to help him assassinate their father in exchange for half of Dad’s property, and Dennis, Goneril, and Regan saluting “Evil Love” … but this time in ‘80s classic-rock mode. (“Evil love, surrender to its magic. Evil love, making every drama tragic.”)

As deLEARious ricochets back and forth between time zones, director West inserts ingenious bits certain to tickle an audience’s fancy.

To simulate Lear’s being lashed by a storm, cast members seated in the front row shoot water pistols at the King. At one point, characters begin for no particular reason to speak in Latin. (Fortunately, obliging actors hold up signs with English translations.) And one unsuspecting audience member (this reviewer himself at the performance reviewed) gets to play the recurring role of Messenger, lines and all.

Reminiscent of the zany humor which has made hits of Monty Python’s Spamalot and more recently Something Rotten, Swann and West’s book is smart and funny and their lyrics positively delish. (Edgar and Gloucester’s razzmatazz duet “Follow The Blind” features these madcap lyrics: “You lost your eyesight. You lost your mind. You have to be crazy to follow the blind.”)

As for the triple-threat writers’ catchy-as-all-get-out melodies (ranging from rock to jazz to blues to Broadway show tunes), it’s a shame there’s no cast recording because I’d buy it in an instant.

And speaking of casts, 99-seat-theater musical ensembles don’t get much better than Addington, Lane Allison (Anne Hathaway Shakespeare), George Pete Caleodis (Lord Burleigh, Cornwall), Kiley Eberhardt (Herald), Chris Farah (Fool), Ramón Garcia (Kent), Hunt, Conor Lane (Reverend Lancelot Andrews, Albany), Manziello , Scott Mosenson (Shakespeare, Gloucester), Paige (also Francis Bacon), Roper (who steps away from the piano to play a physician), Roth, Studinski (doubling as Oswald), Watterson (also the King of France), and Amanda Weier (Sergeant, Jailer), and if they didn’t all come into the show as singers and dancers, you’d hardly know it.

With such terrific performers, it’s almost criminal to single out anyone in particular, but Mosenson’s nicely grounded Shakespeare anchors the production, Hunt’s Ron (a role he shares with the real Ron) is too meta-marvelous for words, Paige is wild-and-wacky in a pair of roles that showcase his sky-high vocals, and Addington, Allison, Manziello, and Roth possess show off pipes as well, with special snaps to Manziello’s erotic-meets-outrageous audition song-and-”dance.”

 As for Studinski, the young Alan Cumming’s subtle brilliance in a role that could easily go way over-the-top into La Cage Aux Folles-land, proves deliciously droll and utterly fabulous.

James Spencer’s scenic design is simple but effective as are contemporary costumes (uncredited) and Bruce Dickinson and Ina Shumaker’s clever properties, all of the above beautifully lit by Ellen Monocroussos.

deLEARious is produced by Martha Demson and Weier. Allison is assistant producer. Jennifer Palumbo is stage manager.

I loved deLEARious the first time I saw it back in 2008 and it’s even better in 2017. The ideal antidote to traditional holiday fare, it is once again a deLEARious delight.

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Casitas Ave., Atwater Village.

–Steven Stanley
November 26, 2017
Photos: Darrett Sanders

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