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STAGE REVIEW : Play Works Like Charm--Mostly

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It had to happen. They managed to work in an adroit satirical reference to Roseanne Barr and her rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was not in the show during its six-week run at the La Jolla Playhouse.

They also managed to work in a maladroit technical bungle that threw the scenic design out of whack for much of the first act, an embarrassing glitch also not in the show during the run at La Jolla.

Welcome to Saturday’s opening-night performance of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The revival of this 1962 Broadway musical classic is playing there through Sunday.

The reference--a few bars from the national anthem inserted into the score to complement the introduction of a “dignified” Roman who grabs his crotch--came during the show’s first and most famous number, “Comedy Tonight.” It drew wild yelps of laughter from the crowd.

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The bungle came early, too, when a mechanized turntable failed to revolve completely and left the central facade of the set skewed toward the wings instead of squarely facing the audience. Since most of the entrances and exits came through this piece of scenery--the house of Senex--the problem was particularly unfortunate.

This kind of malfunction can happen anywhere, and, it must be said, neither the players nor the audience seemed distracted by it. Nevertheless, it lasted for 30 minutes or so and was compounded by a peculiar dimming of the scenic lighting. The problem certainly bothered director Des McAnuff enough to get him out of his orchestra seat, apparently for a backstage conference with the crew.

Until that moment, however, “Forum” worked like a charm--better even than it had at La Jolla. Flooded with intense white light, the pop-style setting fairly vibrated with colors--yellow, pink and blue houses dominated by an aquamarine sky and the back-lit arches of a triple-decker viaduct. If there were any fears that the transfer to the Center wouldn’t work because the physical production might not be large enough, they were immediately assuaged.

In fact, because of the Center’s grander stage, the vaudevillian antics at the opening curtain and some of the subsequent shenanigans--such as Miles Gloriosus’ crash-bang chariot entrance--came off better than they had at La Jolla. There was not only more room to cavort, but the contrast between the high-toned surroundings and the low-brow comedy offered an implicitly entertaining irony.

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Led by Ernie Sabella as Pseudolus, the cast showed at least as much energy as before--although not necessarily as much voice. Sabella himself seemed hoarse on occasion, and Liz Torres (Domina) sang without her usual flair. But others were strong, particularly Pamela Winslow (Philia), Jeff Blumenkrantz (Hero), Ralph Bruneau (Hysterium) and Jonathan Freeman (Lycus).

Paul Keith (Senex) shined again with his dithering sketch of a henpecked husband, and both Bruneau and Freeman seemed sharper in their comic performances. As before, George McDaniel (Gloriosus) and George Hall (Erronius) aptly rounded out the principal cast.

Meanwhile, the hot sounds from the orchestra pit filled the large hall without ever seeming thin, no small accomplishment for a 14-piece band. Center officials probably wish they could have filled the 2,996 seats as well. The house was heavily papered with free tickets.

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

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A co-production of the Orange County Performing Arts Center and the La Jolla Playhouse. Directed by Des McAnuff. Written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, based on the plays of Plautus. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Choreography by Wayne Cilento. Musical staging by McAnuff and Cilento. Musical direction and supervision by Ted Sperling. New orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Dance music arrangements by Mark Hummel. Incidental music by Sperling and Steven A. Freeman. Set design by John Arnone. Costumes by Susan Hilferty. Lighting by Brenda Berry. Sound design by John Kilgore. Performances continue through Sunday at the Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $16 to $38. Information: (714) 556-2787.


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