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STAGE REVIEW : A Fresh and Witty ‘Forum’

TIMES THEATER WRITER

A funny thing happened on the way to the La Jolla Playhouse: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” became high class entertainment. That’s Entertainment with a capital E, not a capital H, as in high-brow, which “Forum” could/should never be.

It simply means that director Des McAnuff, choreographer Wayne Cilento, designers John Arnone (playful sets), Brenda Berry (jocular lights) and Susan Hilferty (tongue-in-cheek costumes) have taken the 1962 Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart book based on those immortal low-brow Roman gags of Plautus and added new fun and visual wit of their own.

They didn’t have to do anything to the gorgeous Stephen Sondheim music or lyrics (how do you improve on “I squeak, I squawk/Today I woke too weak to walk . . . .”?) except restore a couple of hitherto deleted songs. “The House of Marcus Lycus” is back to its original length and the exquisite love duet, “The Echo Song,” uncharitably excised in the past, is happily back where it belongs.

Orchestrator Bruce Coughlin has spiced things up with some embellishments a la Spike Jones, and musical director Ted Sperling and Steven A. Freeman have injected some strategic but noninvasive incidental music. All to the good.

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The results are a truly funny thing: a vivid, fast-moving, new-vision “Forum” for the ‘90s.

McAnuff has called it a New Vaudeville “Forum,” but never mind the semantics. What it comes down to is that, without hampering the old plot (the oldest of them all: the convoluted machinations of the slave Pseudolus to attain his freedom) or altering any of the sexist-chauvinist jokes and stereotypes (the harridan Domina, the hen-pecked Senex, the bevy of courtesans with such indiscreet names as Vibrata, Gymnasia and Panacea), McAnuff has breathed robust new life into them.

He’s given the women equal smarts, made them undiminished rebels instead of bimbo chattel, placed the show’s emphasis squarely on everyone’s unquenchable thirst for freedom (from slavery, from marriage, from parents, from contracts) and let it rip.

This “Forum” moves like the wind, part Barnum & Bailey, part Abbott and Costello (Ralph Bruneau’s Hysterium rightfully gets just about equal billing with Ernie Sabella’s Pseudolus), and is redolent with sight gags, word gags (“Oh, Philia . . .”), chases, revolving houses that make comic statements of their own--everything, in fact, except the kind of Las Vegas sleaze that has beset this appealing musical through the years, making it too often just appalling.

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Sabella, a Gorbachev look-alike, is a great dumpling of a Pseudolus--a savvy jangle of loose nerves in a terminal snarl of self-defense. Given this show’s affection for puns it’s amazing he didn’t end up being called Pandemonium.

Without doing an imitation, Paul Keith’s lech of a Senex is reminiscent of the late-great Phil Silvers in the role, while Liz Torres as his wife Domina, plays the virago aspects of the role with a surprisingly sympathetic subtext (it can’t be all fun being married to Senex).

Hero, their son, is a lovesick puppy at the proper hands of Jeff Blumenkrantz, while Pamela Winslow’s Philia, the object of Hero’s adoration, eschews the usual dumb-blond interpretation for the classier uneducated-but-not-stupid. It makes her instantly more interesting. As for George McDaniel as her smug, cock-o'-the-walk betrothed Roman general, Miles Gloriosus (“I am my own ideal”), he looks like a young William F. Buckley--a coincidence that rather enhances the performance.

But the overriding virtue of this co-presentation with the Orange County Center for the Performing Arts (where the show will play Aug. 17-21) is the director’s regard for the dignity of comedy. McAnuff has respect for the material and a field day clowning it up-- up , mind you, not down. Cilento’s choreography is never cheap; suggestive yes, in bad taste no. There’s not a smidgen of vulgarity in this show, with a splendid pit band of 14 that keeps things at a frenzied pitch.

It’s a vibrant, unclean, saucy romp, filled with cleverness and wit, in which all elements come together to make it the summer’s great Roman caper. Something for everyone. They don’t make them much more entertaining than that.

“Forum” may just be headed for Orange County next, but watch it go a lot farther.

At the Mandell Weiss Theatre, UCSD campus, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road in La Jolla, Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m.; matinees, Saturdays and Sundays at 2, until Aug. 12. $20-$26; (619) 534-3960. Special pay-what-you-can matinee Saturday.

Moves to the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa, Aug. 17-21; (714) 556-ARTS).

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‘A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM’

A revival of the 1962 musical based on the plays of Plautus, with book by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Director Des McAnuff. Choreographer Wayne Cilento. Musical staging McAnuff, Cilento. New orchestrations Bruce Coughlin. Musical direction Ted Sperling. Incidental music Sperling and Steven A. Freeman. Dance music arrangements Mark Hummel. Slapstick and clown coaching Jeff Gordon. Set John Arnone. Lights Brenda Berry. Costumes Susan Hilferty. Sound John Kilgore. Dramaturgy John Magruder. Stage manager Frank Hartenstein. Assistant stage manager Wendy Beaton. Cast Fred Anderson, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Ralph Bruneau, Mindy Cooper, Wendy Edmead, Pamela Everett, Jonathan Freeman, George Hall, Paul Keith, Cindi Klinger, Barry Lee, George McDaniel, Pat Moya, Tom Nelis, Ernie Sabella, Liz Torres, Pamela Winslow, Christina Youngman.


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