Fans of musical theater are often hard-pressed these days to find new offerings that aren’t based on movies, television shows, other plays or someone’s Greatest Hits collection. It’s understandable, given the time and financial effort required to stage an untested prospect at the professional level, that producers will tend to shy away from new work. So, when Bill Hanney decided last year (after a little market research) to open Theatre by the Sea’s 2019 season with an original musical, many wondered if tinkering with his usual formula of nothing-but-the-hits summer fare was going to pay off. However, given the stability and year-after-year growth of TBTS, Hanney decided to take a chance on a “screwball romantic comedy” that is new, but feels more than a little familiar.
Love and Other Fables, which just opened in previews, sees its official world premiere in Matunuck on Friday, May 31, and runs through June 16, taking the opening slot formerly reserved for intimate, small-cast jukebox musicals. “When I saw last summer’s audiences overwhelmingly voted on our survey to see a new work during the season, I knew it was the right time to give this show the premiere it deserves. Being the first audiences to see this hysterical musical before it gets to Broadway is something they will remember for a very long time,” enthuses Hanney. The connection comes through legendary Broadway casting director Jay Binder, who was attached to the project almost from the very start. Once Hanney was exposed to Fables through its various workshops and “in concert” showcases, he was immediately an evangelist for the piece.
Set on the Greek island of Samos in 600 BC, Love and Other Fables follows the early life of Aesop, the not-yet-famous slave, as he creates the “fable,” persistently woos the headstrong girl of his dreams, enters into a battle of wits with the King of Egypt and changes the course of history. If it sounds not too unlike A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, it’s a comparison that co-creator John McMahon welcomes (not to mention the TBTS box office staff who are challenged to describe the show to curious ticketbuyers who aren’t used to being unfamiliar with every show in the season). “If I’m going to be compared to anything,” he says, “Forum is certainly a welcome choice.”
McMahon tells Motif that he began collaborating with partner Jay Jeffries on Fables after meeting him at a Jay Binder-helmed production of No No Nanette. “Jay was hired to write harmony pieces for high school glee clubs at one point, and found himself setting fables to music and wondered if maybe he had a musical there. He tried two other composers before he met me, but neither of them really knew how to write music. And, I had heard of him, and his ability to write really good lyrics, through the piano bar network. I needed someone to write the title song for a musical revue that I created called Bottoms Up! and we had a song in three days. Unheard of! Usually, you get people telling you that ‘your play’s on my desk…I’ll get to it,’ but he immediately expressed an interest in working with us. So, it all started through that collaboration.” Jeffries’ lyrical prowess was highlighted in early reviews of the workshops, with the Chicago Sun-Times saying, “[Love and Other Fables] shows every sign of becoming a surprise hot property … the most astonishing, whip-smart lyrics, with one rapid-fire rhyming line after another perfectly attuned to its properly pronounced syllables.”
Motif had a sneak peek at the initial meet and greet of cast and crew on the first day of rehearsals and the assembled lineup has quite a pedigree. Binder’s team includes choreography by multi-Helen Hayes Award-winner Parker Esse, and musical direction by Ed Goldschneider, currently the musical director for Off-Broadway’s NEWSical. The cast includes Brian Sears (Aesop), whose Broadway and West End credits include The Book of Mormon (Elder Cunningham), Lend Me a Tenor, Finian’s Rainbow, Grease and All Shook Up. The role of Catastrophe will be portrayed by three-time MAC Award-winner, Alison Nusbaum. Blake Hammond, whose Broadway credits include First Date, Sister Act, Elf, Billy Elliot, The Lion King, Hairspray, The Music Man, Kiss Me Kate, and On The Town, will portray the role of King Croesus of Lydia. David Groccia of North Providence is one of the few Rhode Islanders on tap. Kyle Dixon’s set design was given a sneak peek at rehearsals, promising the usual sophistication we’ve come to expect from his work at TBTS.
With the right ingredients in place, all that remains is to see how audiences will respond to this less than politically correct romp, featuring witty dad-joke puns such as “I’m not knockin’ a Deus ex Machina!” John McMahon didn’t seem too worried about the response. “In this climate, just go and laugh. And forget for two hours. We just wanted a real fun ‘that kind of’ musical. Go laugh.”
Bill Hanney’s Theatre By The Sea presents the world premiere of Love and Other Fables May 29 – June 16, Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8pm, Thursdays at 2pm, Saturdays at 3pm and Sundays at 5pm, with special performance times on Sunday, June 2 at 2pm & 7pm. 364 Cards Pond Road, Wakefield. Discount rates are available for groups of 10 or more by calling 401-782-3800 x112. Tickets are on sale at the box office Monday through Saturday from 11am – 6pm and performance days from 11am until curtain, online 24-hours-a-day at theatrebythesea.com and via telephone during normal box office hours by calling 866-811-4111 or 401-782-TKTS (8587).