Jokers deal a winning hand
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
There are a number of reasons why "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is one of the most produced musical comedies, but one of the hardest to get right.
Its book by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove is solidly constructed farce, using the characters of the Roman playwright Plautus, with a veneer of bawdy burlesque comedy. The score was the first to reach Broadway with both music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, back when he was still writing melody. His sly lyrics subver- sively celebrate and spoof musical comedy conventions.
But then there is an intangible that made the original 1962 production so special: the teaming of Zero Mostel with Jack Gilford, who was his best friend and fellow black-listed performer during the Red Scare of the 1950s. In "Forum," Mostel played the finagling slave Pseudolus and Gilford was Hysterium, his patsy, coerced into ever-escalating schemes in service to Pseudolus' passionate desire to be free.
In Rivertown Repertory Theatre's current staging, "Forum" succeeds largely because of just such a teaming. Gary Rucker and Sean Patterson have appeared together onstage many times and the enjoyment with which they partner is one of this show's pleasures.
Patterson's Pseudolus' adroit clowning, quicksilver expressions and vibrant vocals fulfill this top banana role admirably.
It's an achievement he shares with director/co-star Rucker, whose vision of "Forum" as a live-action cartoon proves valid. As the hapless Hysterium, Rucker's comedy touch is lighter, providing balance to Patterson. And Hysterium gets to cut loose when Pseudolus taps his inner glamour girl by persuading him that he's "Lovely."
Richard Arnold's lovestruck Hero is boyishly handsome, sings beautifully and has a disciplined comic sensibility. Carrie Black, as the virginal object of his affection, is the sweetest dumb blond ingenue imaginable. Roland "Butch" Caire, as Hero's lecherous father, adds raunch to his fuddy-duddy daddy. JoAnne Mehrtens, however, as Caire's battle-ax wife Domina, should come on stronger. Her "Dirty Old Man," in which she uses Rucker as a prop, got roars for its staging, drowning out the lyric.
Michael Santos' warrior Miles Gloriosus is so physically imposing, that he gets away with so-so singing. Kyle Daigrepont's procurer Marcus Lycus is amusing, got up incongruously as Fu Manchu. Wayne Gonsoulin likewise gets laughs as deus ex machina Erronius, but both roles should ideally be played by older actors.
Among the courtesans, Casey Thompson's cat-like Vibrata and Cammie West's Valkyrian dominatrix Gymnasia are standouts. Dwayne Sepcich, T. Joe Seibert and Keith Claverie are the versatile, energetic Proteans, who play eunuchs, dancing soldiers and Gilbert & Sullivan sailor boys.
Chris Adams' set looks like it was drawn by cartoonist Jules Feiffer, Black's choreography is sexily jaunty, Linda Fried's costumes colorfully varied, and musical director Lori DeWitt gets a great sound from her nine-piece band, especially on the brassy, audience-pleasing "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid." The chase scene at the end was a tad slow, but has undoubtedly picked up since opening night.
The laughter is loud and lusty at this "Forum," the best production the show has received locally in years.
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Theater writer David Cuthbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (504) 826-3468.