As in all of the most successful shows at the Gaslight Theatre, a delightful sense of comic anarchy rules over Cronan the Barbarian.
In this production, set in a vague ancient time, pirates and Roman-style slave drivers collude; an evil sorceress and a pure-of-heart princess collide; and parodies of Conan and Xena save the day in a world peopled by gladiators, thieves, centaurs and an almost-racist Asian sage.
Over 32 years, the artists behind the Gaslight have developed a surefire formula for their comedy-musical-melodramas, but some of the shows feel a little predictable. The Gaslight gives its audience just what they want—light-hearted, family-friendly entertainment—no matter whether the result is original or maybe a little stale.
That said, writer-director Peter Van Slyke, working with the help of a reliable cast and a creative crew of designers and musicians, has imbued Cronan with just enough of the zany momentum for which the Gaslight is known. It's the most fun I have had at the eastside theater in many years.
Let's not spend too much time on the show's story—which has something to do with the quest of the evil Queen Vultura of Draconia to wrest control of the world, Princess Persephone's beloved Persepolis, and Cronan the Barbarian's amorphous fight for freedom. Plot details are merely devices to facilitate getting from sketch A to joke B to spit-take C, in castles, villages, temples and wooded glades.
Suffice to say that Todd Thompson strikes heroic pose after heroic pose as the titular barbarian. Thompson ably parrots the unique accent of a certain Austrian actor-turned-California governor, but he uses artistic judgment about when exactly to employ it—mostly during repeated variations on the nonsensical line, "Listen to me now and hear me later"—and when to suspend it and simply speak in a generic Valley Guy dialect.
Thompson also sings well during "Eye of the Tiger," one of the many song parodies in a show heavy on 1970s disco and 1980s hair-metal. Deborah Klingenfus is even better as Princess Persephone, a diminutive charmer packing a vocal punch on "I Need a Hero." The other heroic star is Katherine Byrnes as Zeena, a warrior princess who teams up with Cronan to fight the baddies and tutor Persephone in the ways of being a kick-ass chick. Naturally, Byrnes belts out "The Warrior" and "I Will Survive," and is disarmingly convincing while doing so.
Many juicy villains populate Cronan, allowing for a veritable chorus of evil and numerous opportunities for all manner of maniacal laughter, as well as the attendant booing from the audience. As Vultura, Sarah Vanek is an especially good cackler, and her multi-hued fright wig is a vision to behold. David Orley, one of the perennial gems of the Gaslight, is quite wonderful as Vultura's gong-happy adviser, Reptilian. (Or is it Reptilius? The program can't decide.) Anyway, Orley works up a righteous sweat singing "Treat Her like a Lady"—when he's done, you will believe.
Gaslight stalwarts Joe Cooper, Sean MacArthur, Charlie Hall and, especially, the multi-talented Mike Yarema add to the collective insanity.
As usual, Tom Benson's set design and wizardly effects are marvelous; often, they're self-contained jokes—from the magic talking mirror to a terrific chase scene in the forest to a silly horizontal climb up a sheer vertical cliff.
There are also lots of interesting fake swords and battleaxes, a panoply of colorful costumes from different eras, wigs that are almost characters themselves, and even a falling chandelier exactly like in The Phantom of the Opera. (Well, not exactly.)
The world-famous Gaslight band—led by the expert Linda Ackermann at the piano, and aided by longtime cohorts Rich Brennion on guitar and Jon Westfall on drums—works hard but hardly shows it, keeping the show and the tunes flowing.
Nancy La Viola's choreography is minimal when a performer is a doing a solo number, but the group pieces—including one in which the whole cast, friends and enemies alike, throws down together—are groovy fun.
Speaking of groovy, the post-show olio is a re-creation of The Tonight Show, circa 1970, with Yarema as a spot-on Johnny Carson, and Orley hilarious as a blubbering Ed McMahon. Thompson and MacArthur nail The Smothers Brothers, while Cooper and Byrnes tackle Sonny and Cher. Most memorable are Byrnes as Bette Midler and Klingenfus as Dolly Parton.
If you like Thompson and Klingenfus, each has a solo show planned. Standards, country and the music of Broadway will fill "An Acoustic Evening With Todd Thompson" on Monday, Sept. 7. And you can catch "Sugartime: An Evening with Deborah Klingenfus" on Monday, Sept. 14, during which the singer will perform material from the golden age of American popular music. Both shows start at 7 p.m. in the auditorium at the Gaslight.