Neil Simon’s Fools was a Broadway flop that closed after forty performances back in 1981. Legend has it that, during divorce proceedings, an agreement was made with his wife that he would write a play and that she would receive the profits. So he wrote the play so as to flop, which it did, closing on May 9, 1981 after 40 performances. Since then the play has been adapted several times as a musical, the latest of which is the fabulously funny Neil Simon’s Musical Fools with book and lyrics by Neil Simon and music and lyrics by Phil Swann and Ron West, now running at Open First Theatre Company.
In late Nineteenth Century Eastern Europe, a young school-teacher, Leon Tolchinski (handsome, charismatic Demetris Hartman on opening night) travels by train to the small Ukrainian town of Kulyenchikov. The train is packed cheek-by-jowl with passengers (the ensemble cast of exceptional performers). The conductor (Hank Jacobs) tells him that the train will not stop at Kulyenchikov and that he must jump off, which he does with a push from the conductor. And we are off to the comedic races.
Kulyenchikov is under a curse that has rendered the populace stupid in the most silly of ways. They cannot learn to add one and one. A woman, Yencha (Cat Davis) sells flowers as fish. A shepherd, Something, Something Snetsky (Parvesh Cheena) cannot keep track of his sheep, and on and on. And yes, the village idiot is even worse. They are all amiable, but hopelessly dumb, and they know it. The curse, too complicated to explain here, was levied two centuries before by Count Vladimir Yousekevitch, and is maintained by his descendant Gregor (the brilliantly snide, wonderfully funny, golden-voiced Jason Paige).
Tolchinski reports to Dr. Zubritsky (Bruce Green on opening night), who hired him, and encounters the doctor’s vacant-but-charming wife, Lenya (Robyn Roth) and as well as their beautiful daughter, Sophia (the lovely songstress, Clare Snodgrass), with whom he falls instantly in love.
Rounding out the cast are Brendan Mulally (Slovitch, Chorus, Bookworm), Beth Robbins (Magitrate, Chorus), Jack Sharpe (Casimir, Ensemble), Diane Renee (Woman, Ensemble), Bolor Saruul (Passenger, Ensemble), Juliane Hagn (1691 Sophia, Ensemble), and Nina Genatossio (1691 Magistrate, Cow, Ensemble). James Byous alternates as Tolchinsky; Derek Manson alternates as Dr. Zubritsky; and Ben Goldberg alternates as Gregor.
The plot, too complex to explain here, but easily understood by an audience, is filled comedic opportunity, which the cast, under the superb direction of Ron West, seizes with unfettered gusto. When they perform as an ensemble unit, the complex, detailed choreography by Louisa Kendrick Burton is delivered with hilarious precision. In fact, precision is the name of the game here, with rapid entrances and exits, hand-offs of props, and action so breathlessly energetic that it called to my mind the old Broadway show and subsequent movie, Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin. The musical numbers come fast and furious with an expert band consisting of Matt Germaine on reeds, Ross Wright (Ryan Roberts, alternate) on bass, Adam Snow on drums and percussion, with musical director Jan Roper conducting at the piano at the piano.
Neil Simon’s Musical Fools is visually splendid with a set design by Jan Munroe that is painterly in a way that calls to mind Chagall. Look for little stick figures that cruise around the upper edges of the set pieces, and the Count’s castle that lights up from time to time in the upstage left corner of the set is funny. Who would have expected these elements to get laughs, but they do.
Lighting is by Matt Richter and Mary Keegan; the sound designer is Tim Labor; costumes are by Mylette Nora; and Bruce Dickinson and Ina Shumaker are the prop masters. The stage is artfully managed by Jennifer Palumbo.
Neil Simon’s Musical Fools is so hilarious that I giggled, guffawed, snorted, and howled basically through out the whole show. I cannot remember having a better time at a show than this. If you love comedy as I do, don’t hesitate, get your tickets, see the show, extend its run. You will not be sorry.
Open Fist Theatre Company’s production of Neil Simon’s Musical Fools runs through November 17 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue in Los Angeles.