Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to the Forum – Book by Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart – Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

By Joe Straw

"I met a charming man at Theatre Palisades.  Plagued by a multitude of problems and in a raspy voice he said he would be 108 years old in three days, two hours, and forty-seven minutes. Although failing in health he was as sharp as a tack.  He said he hadn't smiled in twenty years and was looking for something in this musical he had lost long ago. (Women of Rome breathlessly moving around in togas, perhaps.)

One cannot imagine not smiling for 20 years. And one could not help but feel sympathetic to this poor arthritic gentleman, pushed in a wheelchair by his Filipino nurse, dragging along an oxygen tank connected to tubes that were inserted into his nostrils.  Still, the best one could do was to wish him a pleasant time with his viewing experience in the hopes that maybe he would find something in this musical that would make him smile"

 - The Lying Narrator. 

I’ve driven by Theatre Palisades on Temescal Canyon Road a number of times and never knew it was there.  There’s plenty of parking and it’s a very nice space for a community theatre.

Playing now at Theatre Palisades is A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, book by Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, June 3 – July 10, 2011, directed by Scott Martin, and produced by Shirley Churgin & Andrew Frew.

There is a lot to smile about in this version of Forum but there are some things that get a polite hmmm.   The acting is above par, as are the costumes.  The courtesans are way above par, but the men’s lust slightly below par. It is an interesting mixture of lost expectations, elation, deflation, contagion, and exasperations.  But, most importantly, it was a lot of fun. 

The play starts with the germ of an idea: a slave wants to get his freedom.  But it is also the crux of this musical. To achieve freedom, freedom from slavery, freedom from parents, freedom from spouses, etc., a simple and effective through line.   

Pseudolus (Travis Dixon) is a slave to Hero (Zach Kaufer) who is the son to Senex (Bradley Kesden) and his wife Domina  (Gail Writh).

Hysterium (Frank Weidner) is slave to Senex and Domina.  Hysterium grovels at the skirt of Domina. And Domina acts as though he doesn’t exist.  Outward appearances may accept that but deep down inside and behind closed doors she is full of lust to those who kiss her robe and he is a cater-cousin to her physical desires.  

And in this degrading section of Rome, lust, poverty and wretchedness appear on every doorstep.  Sad but true. 

Next door sits the house of Marcus Lycus (Nathaniel Mathis) a hip swinging buyer and seller of courtesans.  He offers a brief respite to those who are unhappy with their current sexual state of affairs. 

But wait, what is that young virginal creature that longingly gazes out the window, combs her hair, and drops the remains of her golden locks (once caught in the teeth of her brush) to the ground? It is none other than Philia (Kristin Towers-Rowles) a (eh hem) virgin.

It is a love that is caught in one compassionate moment.  Hero must have this lovely creature, to hold, caress, and other things.  But, the only way he can get her is to get into the House of Lycus and negotiate.  He is too young, so he must ask Pseudolus, his slave, to get her with his money. But here lies the conflict because Pseudolus wants his freedom and Hero is a little hesitant about granting those wishes.   Hero relents.  

Meanwhile Hero’s parents journey to visit relatives or rekindle the relationship and they order Hysteria to look after their son, Hero.

While the parents are away Pseudolus, acting like a free man, negotiates with Lycus for the virgin.  Lycus parades the courtesans outside his den on inequity, Tintinabula (Melanie Ball), Panacea (Nicole Thordsen), Vibrata (Brittany Hooper) The Geminae (Robin Jones and Becky Jones) and the eye-catching, complete with high heels and legs up to … (slow down) Gymnasia (Erin Beck).  And wouldn’t you know it, the one woman not available is the virgin who has been promised to Captain Miles Gloriousus (Luis Ordaz).

Sensing his freedom is a lost cause; Pseudolus devises a plan to lure Philia away from the house of Lycus and into the arms of Hero.  To do this he tells Lycus that Philia has contracted the plague from Crete and is now showing the first signs of the unspeakable contagion, which is a smile. 

Lycus, sensing a Roman tradegy of terrifying proportions, has Pseudolus take guardianship of Philia and places her into Hero’s house where they fall in love.  But the confused virgin bound by the rule of virgin law must stick to her word.  She tells Hero that she is promised to the Captain. 

Oh boy.  (Leave it to a virgin!)

Undeterred they tell her to stay in Senex house until she hears “three knocks” on the door.  Having a difficult time counting that high, she agrees.

Meanwhile Senex comes back home to find Philia in his house.  Philia, in true virgin fashion, mistakes him for the captain and offers herself to him. (Spoken like a “needy” virgin.)  Hysteria comes upon them and tells Senex she’s the new maid!

“Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”

Later Miles Glorious enters looking for his new virgin bride and that is when the fun starts.

There’s a lot to say of this production, mostly good, some not so good.  All of the voices were nice, a couple of notches above community theatre and there’s a lot of nice energy in the room.

Travis Dixon as Pseudolus was engaging.  Lost during the mayhem on stage was his objective, which was his freedom.  And one is not sure if the objective was achieved in the end. Dixon was physically clever, a great storyteller, and practically gets what he wants.  Missing were the moments where he doesn’t seem to get what he wants, is defeated, and must redeem himself to get back into the good graces to those who would help him reach his objective.

Zach Kaufer as Hero was a little more virginal than the virgin herself.  Wide-eyed and a slightly confused character, Kaufer seemed to hit all the right notes. Still, he is the master.  And young or not he should control Pseudolus.  He should try a little harder to get what he wants.  And he should develop a stronger relationship with his mother, father, and slave. 

Bradely Kesden as Senex has a very nice look about him.  He was relaxed and comfortable on stage, perhaps too comfortable. Missed cues forced him to come out of character a couple of times and interact with the audience.   Although it seems he was covering a mistake, possibly a better idea would be to take that moment to strengthen the relationship between himself and his son. After all, the relationships works better if there is a stronger competition for the hand of Philia.

Kristin Towers-Rowles as Philia, the virgin courtesan who has trouble counting to three, has a unique persona and an extraordinary ability to milk every moment on stage.  Her comic timing was spot on and sincere. But can the character be so dumb (for lack of a better word) that she doesn’t know which man she wants to spend the rest of her life with? Certainly Philia must size up each man, take him for what he is worth, and then make the decision (which must be a strenuous task given the character’s mental faculties).  A very nice performance and a very nice voice.

Frank Weidner as Hysterium was in a state of panic the whole night and one is not sure of his objective.  There was no place to go with this hysteria.  His choices need to be clear and simple, but imaginative as well.  Yes, he was funny.  But in the long run, funny doesn’t get him what he wants.   Having a clear objective, moving with that truth in mind, will only translate into funny. 

Gail Wirth as Domina was quite capable but not really sure what she wanted.  Certainly she is a little frustrated with her husband, which translates into a snear that was hard to forget and doesn’t take her anywhere.  Her relationship with her son was absent.  Her relationship with her new daughter-to-be not tangible.  Certainly she has to compete with the younger nubile toga wearing Roman ladies on stage and she can’t do this with a fake nose to beautify herself when no one recognizes this strange thing on her proboscis.  But in the end was she successful?  Well, in the end, she got her man which one believes is what she wanted.

Luis Ordaz as Miles Gloriosus had a lot going for him.  Towering above the rest of the cast one could imagine him as being a ferocious fighter for the Roman army. He has a very interesting look as though he stepped out of an Italian Hercules film of the sixties.  He also had a very nice comic timing and was delightful to watch.  His bio was left blank in the program and his photo looked like it was taken from the DMV.  That aside, he was wonderful in the role.

Jim Witoszynski as the Protean was quite clever and had a different look in each of the character he portrayed. Nicely done.  Also Jose Acain as another Protean was effective in the role and did some very nice things.

Richard Little as Erronius runs around the Seven Hills of Rome and has his children stolen when they were infants.  He plays a significant role in the successful conclusion of the musical.  As the character he must not lose sight of stopping the search for his children.

Nathaniel Mathis as Marcus Lycus had an interesting characterization. Not sure if it worked or not. One thinks in order for the role to work he needs to take extreme pride in his product and this will ensure that the other things will fall into place.

And the products of Marcus Lycus were Melanie Ball as Tintinabula, Becky Jones and Robin Jones as Geminae, Nicole Thordsen as Panacea and Brittany Hopper as Vibrata all were delightful and gave the audience the flavor of nasty Roman decadence. Also Erin Beck as Gymnasia was masterful in her portrayal.  She has a very nice look and her objective was clear.  Nice job. 

Scott Martin, the director, did a nice job of putting all this together. The musical will only get better when things start settling down and the relationships develop into something that is more cohesive.   Still, there were some fantastic numbers: Comedy Tonight, Everybody Ought To Have a Maid, Bring Me My Bride were very successful and Pretty Little Picture less so.    

The music directed by Brian Murphy was enjoyable from start to finish.  Brian Murphy, the conductor, and on piano, Phil Moore on reeds, and John Harvey on drums only prove you don’t need a twelve piece orchestra to be successful. 

“I looked over to the old man during the Gymnasia and Pseudolus scene, he broke a faint smiled and I knew he found what he was searching for. “

- The Lying Narrator

Pierson Playhouse
Pacific Palisades, California

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