The Barber of Seville Sings With Music-Free Comedy

Calvin Hudson, Brittny Bush and Philip Hays in The Barber of Seville
Calvin Hudson, Brittny Bush and Philip Hays in The Barber of Seville Photo by Pin Lim
The setup:

This ain’t your parents’ production of insert show name here.

We’ve all seen a review start out like this. The cliché-ridden shortcut method of telling readers that the show about to be discussed has somehow been updated or tweaked (usually with edgy flourish) and now bears only rough resemblance to the original creation.

But far be it from us to burden you with such an overly worn description of theatrical modernization. We know you’re far too sophisticated and well-read for that.

Instead, we’ll use the same phrase to describe a show that thinks the version your parents and grandparents and maybe even your great grandparents saw is, in fact, the modern version.

Dear readers, The Classical Theatre Company’s production of The Barber of Seville is most certainly not your parents’ play.

Notice we said play here instead of opera. And that’s precisely the point. Before Rossini turned Figaro and his gang into the hummable success we know today, The Barber of Seville was actually a play. A 1775 play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a French polymath who dabbled in many fields as part of the court of Louis XV, including inventor, diplomat, financier, spy, revolutionary, horticulturist and watchmaker. However, despite his many callings, he is best known as a playwright, most notably for his Figaro plays-turned operas, The Barber of Seville and its sequel of sorts, The Marriage of Figaro.

To bring Barber to us here in Houston, Classical Theatre Artistic Director John Johnston (director of the production) also can be credited with wearing more than one hat. Unhappy with the few overly stuffy and old-fashioned adaptations of the script, Johnson took it upon himself to go back to the original French version and translate it himself, injecting some decidedly fresh vernacular in the process.

Okay, so there are elements of newness to this production after all. Whatever. It’s still an old play, is the point. Predating the opera. If you want to hear someone sing "Largo al factotum," you’ll have to go home after and YouTube it.

The execution:

“Where do you live, dumbass?” shouts Count Almaviva as his servant Figaro runs away without revealing his address for their later rendezvous. The meet-up is arranged after the Count admits to Figaro that some may think him “a fool for schlepping off to Seville to chase a woman” and Figaro agrees to help him in his love conquest.

The dialogue of the show, juicily but judiciously peppered with marvelous modern-day patois, may hit the ear differently than Beaumarchais’s version, but the Commedia dell'arte-structured story remains the same. The Spanish Count Almaviva has fallen in love at first sight with Rosine but doesn’t want her to love him simply for his title and money, so he disguises himself as a poor man named Lindor and attempts to woo her. However, Rosine is under the lock and key of her jealous elderly guardian, Doctor Bartholo, who intends to marry her. Just when the Count thinks all is lost, he encounters his old servant Figaro, now working as a barber with access to the Doctor's home. With the promise of money for his help, Figaro devises opportunities for the budding lovers to meet, which involve several disguises and characters for the Count to employ. Hijinks ensue, plans are thwarted, new plots are hatched, it all seems to be going wrong. But then, of course, it all goes right and the play ends with the marriage of the Count to Rosine.

But the story, while perfectly suited to this type of stock character play, isn’t the big selling point for Classical Theatre’s production. Just like we go to the Barber of Seville opera to revel in the music and singing, we come to the play to bask in the comedic acting. And boy is there a boatload to bask in here.

It’s truly a challenge to say who shines brightest and who steals the spotlight most in this quick-fire, physically/ intellectually uproarious and oozing with fun production. As Figaro, Calvin Hudson looking like a Leprechaun Barber in his green vest and bowtie, straw hat with green stripe to match his green striped suit, channels James Corden’s corporeal antics in One Man, Two Guvnors and then kicks it up a notch. It’s not simply Hudson’s rubber band-like physical humor that wins us over, it’s his quick witted rascally ease with the comic dialogue that endears us to him. Even when it’s us theater critics he’s taking a jab at (nicely done!)

As the Count, Philip Hays does dynamic double duty as the perfect straight man to Figaro’s wild child while also kicking it large with his roster of disguised characters. As Lindor, Hays plays a hopelessly romantic and absurdly lovesick man. But his expertise is equally on display playing a drunken soldier and substitute music teacher, each with their own terribly witty affectations and clever ways of making us laugh.

Brittny Bush’s Rosine is a study in drama queen done right. Donning a sparkly mauve gown that literally flows with big emotions, she swoons, she fumes, she wails and she preens. All of which could have made this already subservient character appear more pathetically ridiculous. But in Bush’s hands, Rosine isn’t as helpless as she seems. This is a character playing big for all it’s worth in an attempt to control as much as possible, and the results are as hilarious as they are enlightening.

As bad guy Bartholo, Carl Masterson has the difficult role of playing the butt of everyone’s jokes and ridicule. But the fun in picking on him is only successful if his reaction rises to the challenge, and Masterson here has mastered the art of frustration, to our delight. Thankfully he also gets moments of comedy himself, most notably his litany of pet names he throws out at Rosine in an effort to placate her – his pleading Squiddle Bum being the palpable audience favorite.

But the acting highlights don’t end with the leads. As Rosine’s unctuously Eurotrash music teacher, Bazile, Chip Simmons has us in stiches every moment he spends onstage. Just his entrances alone, with his cocked arm holding a cigarette holder and his air of insufferability have us giggling. However, when it comes to gut busting moments, nothing can compare to Lively (Kregg Dailey) and Youth (Shanae’a Rae Moore) as Bartholo’s bumbling servants. Both drugged by Figaro, Lively with tranquilizers and Youth with sneezing powder, the pair treat us to a full Tim Conway-esque slapstick scene that has us rolling in the aisles.

However, as ridiculously good as this cast is from top to bottom, the real star of this production is translator/director John Johnson. The obvious delight Johnson had in translating and linguistically updating the dialogue jumps out at us throughout the show. With every great line thrown at us, we can hear him chuckling to himself and we laugh along right with him. Whether it’s his cheekily woke and sassy acknowledgement of the line that describes the whiteness of Rosine’s hand (Bush is an African American actress) or his mischievous insertion of a repetition of a quickly spoken “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” as a nod to the opera, Johnson wastes not one humorous opportunity.

The actors feel it too. There is no missing the fun they’re having onstage and the care Johnson has taken as a director to make sure that while this production is challenging work, it’s also a rewarding play for his cast. The result is infectious, taking us along on a high-energy, hysterical ride that builds upon itself like a deliciously droll layer cake. And just when the whole thing threatens to go one iota over the top, Johnson treats us to perhaps the best line (and directorial philosophy) of the show. As the antics heat up near the close of the show, the Count, with a grimace, pooh-poohs a potential narrative turn by declaring, “That would be the stuff of farce like the old masters use to write.” Hear, hear, we say!

The verdict:

Beaumarchais’s The Barber of Seville is the last of the three shows Classical Theatre has produced this season. The other two being Chekhov’s The Bear and the Proposal and Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata. In other words, not exactly oft-produced or well-known works. Risky? Sure. Successful? While we can’t speak to box office proceeds, it’s fair to say that from a critical point of view, it’s been an exciting and illuminating program.

New work is always thrilling. The latest hottest will always have appeal. But we in Houston are lucky to have a company that dedicates itself to looking back in order to bring us forward. And we’re lucky to have this comedic gem of a production showing us that older works, when treated with insight, context and passion, can thrill us just as heartily as the most recent knee-slapper.

The Barber of Seville continues through April 23, 2017 at Classical Theatre Company, 4617 Montrose Boulevard. For tickets, visit $10–$25.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman