Special to the Times
MATUNUCK – Once upon a time in the 1970s, a lyricist named Jay Jeffries was asked to write some songs about Aesop, the legendary writer of fables.
He knew that Aesop, born a slave in Greece circa 620 B.C., was credited with such fables as “The Fox and the Grapes” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” So, like the tortoise in the fable who beats the confident hare, Jeffries set about – slowly and steadily – writing Aesop’s story.
There were obstacles in this race. Some composers didn’t understand Jeffries’ vision. One composer wanted to be co-producer, and that didn’t work out either. Another producer died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
By now decades had passed, and still the finish line had not been reached. Then, last year, the owner of the tiny summer theater in Rhode Island attended a reading of what had become the musical comedy “Love and Other Fables.”
Bill Hanney, owner of Theatre By The Sea, knew that much work remained before the tortoise could cross the finish line. There were stage sets to build, costumes to be designed, actors to be cast.
Finally, on a Friday night on the last day of May, the curtain went up on the first fully staged production of the musical. Hanney reminded the audience they were attending a TBTS first – a premiere of an original production that the company hopes to bring to Broadway.
Brian Sears was chosen to play Aesop. He has an impish grin and reminds one of a contemporary Robert Morse, who starred in the original “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” From the moment he falls out of a hammock while dreaming about the tortoise and the hare, the audience warms to him.
Aesop learns he is to be sold, not a good prospect until he meets the female slave, Lycaena (Landree Fleming), intended to be his mate. But Lycaena has her eyes on another slave, the hunky but goofy Philocalus (Peter Saide), and pleads with the goddess Aphrodite to make them a match.
In casting Fleming as Lycaena, the producers have found a good physical comedian whose voice isn’t always up to the task. She plays Lycaena as earnest, if a bit flaky. Saide, as Philocalus, makes the most of his dumb jock role and proves an audience favorite.
As soon as Aesop’s master, Xanthus (Brad Bellamy) of the Greek isle of Samos, enters the stage, we know there’s something a little off about him – his tunic is uneven, like a poorly buttoned shirt, and his delivery delightfully deadpan. His wife, the aptly named Catastrophe, is played with over-the-top craziness by Alison Nusbaum.
The plot gets a little complicated, but it boils down to this: Philocalus ends up in the Court of King Croesus on the Greek isle of Lydia, where an Egyptian king has challenged Croesus to a game of three riddles.
Croesus (Blake Hammond) is one temper tantrum shy of being Ralph Kramden. He loves not his sexy courtesan Delphinia (Aimee Doherty) but his stockpile of gold, and he can’t resist the prospect of making more money if he wins the bet.
Philocalus, having learned one of the riddles from Aesop, is pressed to solve the other two. Aesop must come to the rescue, prevent war from breaking out between Samos and Lydia, and, don’t forget, get the girl.
Remember, this show started out with a lyricist, so it’s all about words. The songs fairly burst with them, sometimes delivered so fast the audience can barely catch the punchlines.
The songs don’t necessarily advance the plot. They are more exercises in comedy, an excuse to rhyme “Medea” with “onomatopoeia.”
So how is our theatrical band doing so far? The sets are minimal, a few moving doors and a painted moon. The costumes say Las Vegas revue as much as ancient Greek drama. The music is competent but forgettable; you won’t be humming any of these tunes leaving the theater.
But we still have the big dance number – a Broadway-style extravaganza of tap-dancing and chorus-line kicks. This is the number that a long-ago composer told Jeffries to cut from the show, because it has nothing to do with the story.
He did not take this advice, alas, so we have a dance number in the second act that is impressive but has nothing to do with the story.
The tortoise has not given up, though. His performers are giving it their all.
Sears leads the cast with verve and spot-on timing, and there are other fine comic turns – particularly from Bellamy as the Eeyore-like Xanthus and Hammond as the childish King Croesus. At the end, the audience is on its feet.
The hare may be dozing, but the tortoise has not crossed the finish line yet. This show has a long road ahead to get to Broadway.
Is there a moral to the story? We can think of several: clever lyrics need a snappy tune; good actors can save a flawed show; and sometimes the most brilliant creators need to listen to the advice of others.
“Love and Other Fables” continues at Theatre By The Sea through June 16. For ticket information, visit www.theatrebythesea.com.