LIHUE — Jeff Elkins has had the role of a lifetime. Twice.
And boy, is he loving it.
“I am the luckiest actor ever. I really, really am,” he said. “It’s a dream come true, again.”
Elkins landed the lead role of a slave named Pseudolus in “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.” The musical comedy written by Stephen Sondheim is the 2018 season opener by the Kauai Community Players and directed by the legendary and respected Arnold Meister.
The first run begins this weekend at the Puhi Theatrical Playhouse and is already sold out, a little something Meister shared with the cast and crew before Monday’s dress rehearsal.
This isn’t the first time Elkins has played Pseudolus. That happened to be his first role, 35 years ago, on Kauai, in a KCP production, and also directed by that same Arnold Meister.
“Pseudolus feels like my closest and dearest old friend,” the Wailua man said. “I never thought I would see him again.”
Elkins, a stage veteran, hasn’t forgotten how much fun he had then. He’s delighted to be back playing the slave who is trying to win his freedom by helping his young master win over the girl next door — no easy feat, since that girl was already bought by another man.
Of the 121-page script, Pseudolus is on stage for 92, which means eyes will often be on Elkins.
“I am singularly blessed in being involved in this project twice,” said Elkins, owner of The Computer Hospital in Kapaa. “The role of a lifetime, twice, in one lifetime.”
Meister believes this will be one of KCP’s best productions. The Broadway classic is fast-paced, humorous and is off and running, literally, from the first scene. It’s an evening of song, dance, surprises and laughter.
“The comedy comes at you so fast, you’re laughing at jokes and physical things all the way through,” Meister said.
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is described as, “Inspired by the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus, specifically Pseudolus, Miles Gloriosus, and Mostellaria.
“The plot displays elements of farce, including puns, the slamming of doors, cases of mistaken identity (frequently involving characters disguising themselves as one another), and satirical comments on social class,” says KCP’s website.
The title derives from a line often used by vaudeville comedians to begin a story: “A funny thing happened on the way to the theater.” It takes place in Rome 200 years before the Christian era one day in spring, and is set on a street in front of the houses of Erronious, Senex, and Lycus.
The musical’s original 1962 Broadway run won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and numerous other awards.
The costumes made by Barbara Green are original and demanded attention.
“The costumes are stunning,” Meister said.
The cast includes some of Kauai’s well-known actors. Ron Woods plays Senex, Jason Blake plays Lycus, Billy Quebido plays Hero, Bailey Hutton plays Protean 1, Ross Martineau plays Hysterium, Wil Welsch plays Erronius and Kenna Shafter plays Philia.
“It’s one of the finest casts I’ve had,” Meister said.
He likes the production because of the challenges it represents. The cast and crew must be spot-on, ready to roll, from the opening scene to the closing curtain. It’s physically demanding. There are few points when everyone can take a breather and relax. It’s high energy, nonstop.
It was Meister who picked Elkins for Pseudolus more than three decades ago. This time around, Meister didn’t initially think of Elkins. Then, he did. And is he glad. It’s an enormous part, he said, that requires someone who is up to it every night.
Elkins has shined in rehearsals. His singing, his expressions, his body language, his eyes, all tell the story of a man thrilled at the opportunity to win his freedom and will do whatever it takes, no matter how zany.
“He does the role better now than he did 30 years ago,” Meister said.
Meister saw A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum on Broadway, has long been a fan and has long wanted to direct it again.
“There are some classics I like to go back to,” Meister said.
The second show is always different from the first.
“When you have really a good piece of theater it can take a variety of interpretations,” he said. “It’s never going to be the same.”
Elkins said when he played Pseudolus 35 years ago, the play was at Lihue United Church and it was his very first show.
“To this day, I have no idea what Arnold saw in me all those years ago,” he said.
Elkins recalled that he was a radio guy at the time, minding his own business, when Meister asked him if he had ever done any acting.
“I had not,” Elkins said.
Meister went on to explain he was directing a KCP play and there was a part he could see Elkins playing.
“I think you’d be great,” he said.
Elkins auditioned, thinking it was probably for a minor role.
Turned out to be a little more.
He said Meister put him under the tutelage of a KCP stalwart who taught him the craft of stage.
“God bless him,” Elkins said. “He had the presence of mind to pull me aside and say, ‘Kid, you better enjoy this. You might act for 30 years and never get another role like Pseudolus.’”
He later lived in Hollywood and acted for years.
“I never had another role like Pseudolus,” he said.
But last year, he heard KPC and Meister were again going to produce A Funny Thing.
Elkins, 60, thought, ‘Well, I’m too old to play Pseudolus.”
Oh no, he wasn’t.
Then came an email from his old friend, Meister.
“What do you think about playing Pseudolus again?”
Elkins said he would not have considered auditioning, but at Meister’s request, he did.
And so, again, the spotlight will fall on him for much of this adult-themed comedy. He even got his gray hair colored brown for the part.
“I don’t want to play Pseudolus at 60,” he said, laughing.
Elkins said the character is “a lot like me, honestly.”
“A lot of people say I’m working hard. I’m not,” he said. “I am playing. It’s so fun.”
He does admit that playing this role 35 years older than the first time has been, in ways, a reminder he is not a young man, at least not in body.
“That keeps coming back to me again and again and again. I’m have the time of my life, but I’m really sore,” he said, laughing. “I will be ready for some rest.”
Comparisons to this 2018 version of A Funny Thing to the one 35 years ago are inevitable, Elkins said. But it’s a different place, space and time.
“Arnold has been blessed with an even better cast this time,” he said.
Elkins said Meister has changed “quite a bit” since then.
“He was much more of a taskmaster in the old days. He’s mellowed a little bit,” he said.
Acting, Elkins said, became a lifelong passion from that first role Meister cast him in. And for that, he will always be thankful.
“He plucked me out of nowhere. I owe it all to Arnold Meister,” he said. “I love that man. He has truly had a profound effect on my life.”
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum runs through Feb. 4. For tickets: kauaicommunityplayers.org