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'Not the Count of Monte Cristo?!' tries to make it work

A comedic farce of epic proportions and destitute means, “Not the Count of Monte Cristo?!” opened last week at the Randall Theatre in Medford. It’s a musical comedy in three acts for three players and a piano.

The set is clumsy, with hand-drawn signs and curtains on a rod instead of doors. Costumes are goofy, and for the most part haphazardly put together. It’s a play within a play, a common enough theatrical technique but taken to the extreme of ridiculousness at Randall because the play is about a producer who has no money to put on his show and makes do at every opportunity.

“Not the Count of Monte Cristo?!” is a parody of Alexandre Dumas’ “Count of Monte Cristo,” an early 19th-century romantic drama set in France and on the Mediterranean, filled with love, lust, hope and revenge. There’s no forgiveness though in the Randall performance, just plain-old getting back your own on poor Elliott Anderson, who really, really tries and just barely makes it all work.

Anderson directs the show and also performs the lead role, Edmund Dantes. Mercedes, or “Sadie” as she is also called, was played by Alissa Larson, whom we last saw on the Randall stage as the Green Girl in “Shout.” Larson’s lanky frame was filled with grace and balletic precision except when it was not, and the audience fell to laughter. She pantomimes a baby born, and 20 years later, there is that big helicopter-hat baby, Jeff Mercer in the role of Albert.

“This was a challenging comedic role,” said Larson, “because these guys (Anderson and Mercer) are comedy kings, and I really had to up my game.”

There’s an anchor role in “Not the Count of Monte Cristo?!,” and that is Mercer, who played more roles than can be counted (literally, he’s “Anybody Else” in the script). A new hat, elaborate costume, voice and demeanor is required for each persona he inhabits. Mercer is remarkable to have maintained the continuity of so many roles without a line drop and, as is required for the show, not-so-quick costume changes complicated by buttons and bows resulting in many a missed cue.

“I love to be a character actor and have done a lot of ensemble roles, so “Not the Count” is kind of like the extreme version of being in a major musical,” Mercer explained. “I’m a very cartoony person, so I’m living the dream of being a walking cartoon.”

An unexpected and delightful addition to the cast was Jennifer Dykstra on piano. She’s a volunteer from the audience (except she’s not, really) who reluctantly agrees to sub in for the piano player who didn’t show for the performance. Dykstra is hilarious and without warning holds up the show for a selfie, relaxes to read the program and takes a break to eat Chinese food with chopsticks at the keyboard. We only see her back, but Dykstra’s talent for comedic mis-timing is unerring.

“Not the Count of Monte Cristo?!” was written by David Reiser and Jack Sharkey in the ’70s and has been infrequently performed, giving director Anderson and the three players huge latitude to invent and misinterpret the playwrights’ lines. The production was updated with cellphone selfies, contemporary music and inside jokes that kept the actors laughing and the audience, too.

One of the funniest things about the play and perhaps an aspect that will be most appealing to the young at heart is the music. Lyrics and soliloquies are simple to say and easy to understand, each line rhyming like a Hallmark card. The musical numbers sometimes end up as three-way cacophonic performances, each of the three players bellowing out their own version of the lines. The audience is directed with an electronic cue board above the stage to boo, hiss, stand and applaud or cheer wildly. And without fail, it does, with lots of laughs.

With the opening of “Not the Count,” the Randall has changed it up again. The stage is in the corner, with seating on three sides, elevated up to five risers for a good view from every position. Seating is new too, with comfortable, wide padding on the seats and back rests. As always, the sofa front and center provides the best seats in the house, and while there’s a raffle winner every time, so far I’ve missed the draw. No worries, the Randall is a good cause and well deserving of this friendly, house-warming exercise.

“Not the Count of Monte Cristo?!” continues at the Randall Theatre, 20 S. Fir St., in Medford, through June 23. Performances are set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Advance reserved tickets cost $24. Pick-your-price tickets are available at the door. For more information and tickets, see RandallTheatre.com or call the box office at 541-632-3258.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.