Musical farces are so much fun to perform, listen to, and to watch. The best of them become bucket list productions that the best talent in theatre simply must do at some point in their careers.
Titles that fit this mold include The Producers, Spamalot, and most recently the Broadway hit, Something Rotten. I am an enormous fan of the musical farce genre and as such was excited to get a ticket for Little Theatre of Virginia Beach’s current production of Olympus on My Mind.
Olympus on My Mind was originally a play entitled Amphitryon by Heinrich von Kleist (1808), which was taken and adapted from Moliere’s comedy of the same name (1668). In other words, it is a musical farce based on a play that was adapted from another play. It was an Off-Broadway hit and ran for 297 performances in 1986. With music by Grant Sturiale and book and lyrics by Barry Harman, the show centers on the mythical god, Jupiter. He has come to earth (again) in the guise of human form (again) in order to sleep with a beautiful woman (again!). The farce is that poor Jupiter has chosen the likeness of the King of Thebes, Amphitryon, who has not yet returned from the war with Sparta and falls in love with the king’s wife, Alcmene. Once the real king arrives home from the battlefield, the farce ensues. Harman, an alum of the writing staff of The Carol Burnett Show, has written a clever script in which we see the hilarity of a god feeling human emotions for the first time and the parody of classical Greek theater with modern wit.
Know now that performing musical farce is unlike any other theatrical endeavor. Every play should have the most talented actors available to bring theater to life for an audience. Every musical should have the best singers possible to bring the joy of music to the audience’s ear. And every comedy requires a finely tuned timing in dialogue delivery to wring every ounce of laughter out of the audience. Putting the three together at once is indeed a challenge even for the best of practitioners. While I cannot say that LTVB’s production was the height of the art form, I can say that Director Robert Shirley did a splendid job conveying such demanding material in an intimate space.
The show opened in classical Greek style with a three-man Chorus providing a singing exposition – spoofed with a fourth member who is only on stage because the character’s husband sponsored the production. Although the number is performed well vocally, it exposes two challenges in musical farce. First, every actor on stage must maintain a strong commitment to character and a high level of enthusiasm. The Chorus have differing levels of both and at times looked awkward despite pinpoint harmonies. Second, the issue of constructing and breaking the fourth wall must be firmly settled before the curtain opens in order to maximize the nuance of dialogue intended either for or with the audience. The opening number establishes that the production will make the attempt to affect the nuance a farce requires but at times falls short of accomplishing that goal. Remember, though, that this genre is one of the toughest to master and to be fair to everyone involved, much laughter came from genuine moments and I found myself many times sounding a guffaw heard throughout the house.
The set designed by Donna Lawheed is virtually flawless. A multi-tiered construct that encompasses both heaven (Olympus) and earth (Thebes) in the same space at the same time making room for the orchestral accompaniment cleverly covered by clouds in the sky makes for pleasant aesthetics and allows strong lighting choices by Light Designer Sherry Forbes. The musical direction of Dr. Nancy Whitfield is also second to none. Her direction allows strong singers to sound great while helping lesser-experienced vocalists capably carry their respective songs with ease. The lone demerit in the musical accompaniment is a sound design flaw: at times vocalists are nigh inaudible over the heavenly band.
In addition to production quality, there are quality performers among the ensemble. Janet Maddox (Delores – the fourth chorus member) is a committed, energetic and hysterical performer. Clifford Hoffman (Sosia) is our regional version of Nathan Lane! His comedic timing and vocal intonations for comedic effect are as good as any I have seen. Kai B. White (Charis) is a powerhouse singer and strong presence on stage.
With such strong supporting performances, the leads of the show have their work cut out for them. Kathy Hinson (Alcmene) plays the straight character quite well, allowing for the laughs to come at her expense. Moreover, she is a superb vocalist that is a joy to listen to. In fact, her duet with Anthony Brach (Jupiter), “Heaven on Earth,” is one of the best I have heard in any of Hampton Roads’ community theaters. For his part, Mr. Brach brings considerable experience to a difficult role. While not every comedic moment finds its bulls-eye, he plays the character consistently and well. These two are joined by Dylan Cavasos (Mercury). On occasion his performance belies his youth and relative experience compared to his on stage counterparts. However, his vocal performance is stronger than his youthfulness would suggest. On the whole, Mr. Cavasos holds his own with his talented and experienced co-stars. And as a student at The Governor’s School for the Arts, rest assured we will see much more of him in years to come throughout the region and beyond.
Once the performance was at an end, it was easy to see how much effort everyone involved put forth. Some production deficiencies can be fixed (such as utilizing floor mics so vocalists can be heard at all times); some may resolve themselves as the production run continues (consistent energy on stage); and any others are overcome with quality elements found elsewhere in the show. While the production did not render every point of musical farce with precision, I can say that Olympus on My Mind is a fun show performed by talented people. Both LTVB and Director Robert Shirley should be commended for such an undertaking.
Olympus on My Mind runs for three more weekends. You should be among those audiences.
The subject matter of this play reminds me of the Star Trek episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?” That’s got nothing to do with anything, I’m just a nerd is all.
Olympus on My Mind runs thru February 5 at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach. Fri & Sat @ 8:00pm, Sun @ 2:30pm. Tix: $20 Reg, $18 Seniors, Students, Active Military, $10 Kids 12 and under (although Danon rates the show 14+). Click this link to buy your tickets now, or call (757) 428-9233.