SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Matunuck’s Theatre by the Sea begins its 2019 season with a throwback production that transports the audience all the way back to ancient Greece. The new musical comedy, “Love and Other Fables,” tells a story about a story teller – Aesop, one of the most famous storytellers of all time in fact – and his legendary adventures on the Greek Island of Samos and Lydia around 2,500 years ago. A song and dance extravaganza with wit and heart, the show fits right in at the venerable old barn theater, where nostalgic, feel-good fare is usually on the menu.
A more ambitious undertaking than openers from summers past, when smaller and simpler jukebox musicals usually launch the season, this original production is something of a risky venture for owner and producer Bill Hanney and artistic director Kevin Hill. “Love and Other Fables” is billed as the world premiere of a brand new musical comedy actually several decades in the making. Written by John McMahon and Jay Jeffries, the concept originated in the early 1970s when lyricist Jeffries converted a dozen Aesop’s fables into songs for the high school glee club market. Revived in the 2000s with composer McMahon (an “old piano bar friend”), “Love and other Fables” receives its first fully-staged production at Theatre by the Sea this summer.
The show has a throwback appeal evocative of the Golden Age of Broadway, with a rich musical score, memorable tunes, and clever book and lyrics. Though like many great musicals of that era, the comedy often has a anachronistic feel. Some of the tropes partake in old-fashioned clichés on love and sexuality and the plot is rather oblivious on the topic of slavery. Nevertheless, the show has a light touch, and most audience members will likely take away the lyrical wit and toe tapping musical numbers perfectly calibrated to early summer entertainment by the sea.
“Love and Other Fables” features Brian Sears in the role of Aesop, tracing the fabulist’s journey from unsellable slave to entanglement in the international affairs of Lydia and Egypt, his wit and knack for a good fable always at his side when he needs it. Aesop’s toughest challenge, however, is his fellow slave and object of desire, Lycaena, played by Landree Fleming. Indeed, much of the comic plot is propelled by Aesop’s unremitting attempts to win over Lycaena, who is just not that into him. You’ll have to see the show to find out if his persistence pay off — but let’s just say that the fable of “The Tortoise and the Hare” features prominently in the resolution.
Theatre by the Sea’s show is carried by a talented cast backed by an excellent 8-piece orchestra led by Ed Goldschneider. Sears and Fleming enjoy good chemistry in the lead roles, with larger-than-life comic charm helping sell the awkward love story. From the big opening number, “I’ve Got Fables,” Sears gives an animated, almost virtuoso, performance, sustaining the energy through the nearly 2.5-hour, 2-act show. The musical’s vocals are deceptively complex and Sears was among the performers who did not yield to vocal strain by the finale, in spite of his time on stage. The comedian Fleming leans heavily on crowd-pleasing, scenery-chewing bravado, but backs it up with her brassy vocal performance and agile dance moves.
To the delight of the opening night audience, the remainder ensemble cast is littered with expert, scene-stealing comic performers. Blake Hammond was a crowd favorite in the role of the King Croesus of Lydia. His comic number “Only Unimportant Things” (and its reprise) proved to be a showstopper. As Aesop’s owner and unlikely ally and confidant Xanthus, Brad Bellamy’s deadpan one-liners were uncannily timed, making his earnest second act ballad, “It Doesn’t Always Look Like Love” surprisingly sweet. Playing Philocalus, the beefcake that Lycaena pines for, Peter Saide enjoys a number of great comic moments, as well as a fine duet (“It All Started With a Bang”) with his own love interest (and Aesop’s antagonist) Delphinia, played by Aimee Doherty.
Design elements are top notch, especially given the fact that this is an original show with no production history to draw upon. The show is supported by beautiful lighting design by Jose Santiago, imaginative sets by Kyle Dixon, and original costume design by Bobby Pearce. Parker Esse’s choreography gets a number of moments to shine, particularly the extended second act not-to-be-missed showstopper, “Legs.” The song and dance ingredients are all there for a hit run, peppered with witty lyrics and layered with a nostalgic appeal that should play especially well with Matunuck audiences looking forward to a summer of fun.
Theatre by the Sea has a tough act to follow after a banner year at the box office in 2018, including a record-smashing hit run of “Mamma Mia!” We will see if this year’s season finale, “Saturday Night Fever: The Musical,” can tap into some of that magic. If “Love and other Fables” sounds like your cup of ouzo, grab some tickets before this short run ends on June 16th. And to make sure you get your seaside summer stock fix this year, also keep an eye out for Theatre by the Sea’s other coming offerings, “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Disney’s Newsies.”