TheatreZone is developing a bit of a reputation. The good news? It’s a wonderful reputation that’s luring top-notch professional actors to perform in the company’s shows. The bad news? You’re going to need to reserve your tickets ASAP.
This year, Artistic Director Mark Danni set up the theater’s eighth season, kicking off with “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” As Danni was starting to ponder whom he’d like to cast in the show, he got a rather unexpected call.
“I got a call from Eddie Mekka, and he said he was interested in playing Pseudolus, it was a real thrill to get that call!” Danni says. Although he has had plenty of well-known actors in his TheatreZone shows before, this was the first time a celebrity had called him for a role.
“He said, ‘I love doing Pseudolus,’ and I said, ‘I’d love to have you.’ ”
Just to jog your memory, Mekka is most well known for playing Carmine “The Big Ragu” Ragusa on the hit sitcom “Laverne & Shirley.” But while many know Mekka for his TV work, he’s fantastic on the stage. He was nominated for a Tony award for his 1975 role as the Lieutenant in the Broadway production of “The Lieutenant,” and over the years he’s become well loved for playing Tevye in countless productions of “Fiddler On The Roof.”
“We’re all so excited,” Danni said, adding, “We know he’s funny as hell and we all know he can sing and dance. A lot of people keep telling me that I made an incredible choice! I wish I’d thought of it myself, but Mekka called me.”
And that’s what excites Danni the most. That his tiny theater — with only 250 seats and a diminutively sized stage — has a good enough reputation to draw in such a big name.
“You know, we actors in the business talk to each other,” says Mekka. “A friend of mine who has a condo in Naples mentioned TheatreZone was doing the show. I thought, what better place to be and work for a few weeks?”
If you go
‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 29-Dec. 1 and Dec. 6-8; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2 and 9
Where: G&L Theater, the Community School of Naples, 13275 Livingston Road, Naples
Cost: $43 and $48
Information/Tickets: 888-966-3352 or www.theatrezone-florida.com
Plus, Mekka really loves “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” The show is modeled after the classic Greek farce with larger than life characters doing hilarious things.
In the show Pseudolus, a slave, schemes to win his freedom by helping his master, Hero, win the heart of the courtesan next door, Philia. The trouble is, Philia has been promised to the renowned warrior Miles Gloriosus, who is on his way to claim her.
“It’s very funny,” says Danni, adding, “one of the writers was Larry Gelbart who wrote for ‘M*A*S*H,’ and, like ‘M*A*S*H’ episodes, the humor is clever, witty and it runs throughout the storyline. It’s not all quick gags.”
Meanwhile, the music for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is by Stephen Sondheim. It’s the first musical for which he produced both the music and the lyrics. “It’s not a typical Sondheim score, it’s lighter, but you can still hear the Sondheim in it. And there’s such genius in his lyrics, he was such a wordsmith,” says Danni.
Mekka describes the show as “Vaudeville meets Broadway” and “a whole lot of fun.”
Of course, there are some logistical challenges to staging a big show like this on TheatreZone’s compact stage — there are chase scenes and rowdy musical numbers and an ample cast to navigate. Danni, however, is not worried about it. “Yes, the stage is small, but we’ve gotten very good at doing complex stuff on a really small stage. That’s the advantage of working with professionals; they do this for a living so they know how to make it work.”
One thing that helps is that the show uses a single set, which saves space behind the scenes and eliminates the confusion of executing set-changes in a tiny, pitch-black space. Danni says it will be a trick to get the set to fit on stage — it’s a set made up of three houses with doors that have to open without hitting each other (that will be the tricky part) — but once it’s in place, the rest of staging the show should be pretty easy.
One thing Danni will never do away with however, no matter how crowded the stage gets, are the live musicians in the orchestra pit. “It’s so important to us that we have a live band back there, we always use live musicians.”
And, of course, TheatreZone also uses only the best talent. Besides Mekka, Danni has reeled in baritone Gary Simpson to play Miles Gloriosus. Simpson is a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera, and if his name sounds familiar, it’s because he recently played Mephistopheles in Opera Naples’ production of “Faust.” Says Danni, “A guy from the Met opens on stage with the guy from ‘Laverne and Shirley;’ it’s going to be a really great show!”