Staci Sabarsky and Marie Skelton must be doing something right.
Why else would the stars align so perfectly for the director and producer of the comedy Shakespeare in Hollywood, playing weekends through Jan. 29 at Richey Suncoast Theatre in downtown New Port Richey?
And not just the celestial stars, but also the cream of the crop of Tampa Bay-area acting stars, which Sabarsky has brought to perform playwright Ken Ludwig's fanciful, romantic, award-winning comedy.
It's Ludwig at his best. Little wonder it earned rave reviews from the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe and Baltimore Sun and won the 2004 Helen Hayes Award for Best New Play. Done right, it's a joy from start to finish. And Richey Suncoast Theatre does it right — and then some, thanks to excellent direction, that knock-out cast, Dan McConaghy's sets that allow nary a moment's pause between scenes, Sabarsky's superbly chosen sounds and Garrett Case's execution of them, Matt Beil's light design and Ren Relli's implementation of it, and Skelton's and Erinn Botz's marvelous costumes.
The play opens in 1934 Hollywood, where famous German director Max Reinhardt (an always superb Chris McGinnis) is imploring movie producer Jack Warner (an always terrific Miguel Rodriguez) to pony up to do a movie version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ludwig takes one of many hilarious potshots at Hollywood values when he has Warner and his three brothers crassly uninterested in all that "culture" stuff — they want money and more of it.
Jack also wants chorus girl Lydia Lansing (a simply wonderful Jessie Willis, arguably the queen of physical comedy), whose vulgar behavior and lowbrow tastes make the movie mogul quake with desire. She talks him into doing Midsummer, so she can gain some peer respect — her former roles have been as a fanny-wiggling chorine — even though, Warner admits, "She wouldn't know Shakespeare from sheep dip."
Lydia's opinion of Warner: "What's the use of sleeping with an old man if he doesn't make you a star?"
Just as filming is to start, two of Max's stars opt out — Victor Jory, who was to play Oberon, and Mickey Rooney, who was to be Puck. But then those stars align again, and the real Oberon (an award-worthy Jason Hoolihan) and Puck (an adorable Ashlee Craft) magically arrive from the woods outside Athens from thousands of years ago. They're bewildered, but intrigued, by what they find in the 20th century — telephones, sandwiches, Coca-Cola — but Max just thinks they're actors from Central Casting.
Oberon falls in love with Olivia Darnell (a lovely Susan Belliveau), who's playing Hermia in the film, but Olivia wants Dick Powell (Sam Burke), who's playing Lysander. Oberon sends Puck to get the magic flower, which, when its petals touch the eyes, causes the receiver to fall in love with the first person he or she sees upon awakening, hoping to make Olivia fall for him.
Of course, all goes askew, and people see and fall in love with the wrong people, which leads to perfectly choreographed chaos as Louella Parsons (played with gusto by Jess Glass) and Lydia both fall for Max's dorky assistant, Daryl (a perfectly cast Jason Heinz), and Oliva is smitten by a cross-dressing Joe E. Brown (big, brawny Wayland England), who has been assigned to play Thisbe in the play-within-a play-within-a-play.
It's all made more complicated when movie censor Will Hayes (Mark Lewis) shows up to shut down the movie because he thinks that Shakespeare guy's play is too racy: A Black Fairy abducting a White Woman? he shrieks. Horrors!
Ludwig's script goes to town on Hayes, making him the villain of all villains, and Lewis plays the role for all it's worth, stiff-legging and lip-curling nasty to all concerned. What a joy to see this amazing, hard-working actor do a role just made for him.
The play is just two hours, 15 minutes long, including intermission, so be in your seat at least 20 minutes early to see juggler Adam Sieber play the Ghost of Shakespeare, quoting the Bard of Avon and testing the audience's knowledge of his works (our audience scored A+), a totally delightful warm-up for the play itself.