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‘Funny things’ happening in Newport’s ‘Forum’

Tom Titus

There are, indeed, a plethora of funny things happening in the new

production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at the

Newport Theater Arts Center. Many of them are instigated by an actor

who came aboard only a week before the show opened.

The role of the Roman slave Hysterium, second only in magnitude to

the leading character of Pseudolus, had been played by Kyle Myers for

the first five weeks of rehearsal. But Myers took the actor’s

admonition of “break a leg” a bit too literally and had to be

replaced. Fortunately, director Phyllis Gitlin was able to call on

Richard DeVicariis, who’d played the role on two previous occasions

-- the last one over a decade ago -- and he hit the stage running.

He’s a major factor in one of the funniest community theater shows

you’ll see all year.

“Funny Thing” is the outgrowth of a collaboration among writers

Larry Gelbart (“M*A*S*H”) and Burt Shevelove, with a young Stephen

Sondheim composing both music and lyrics -- his first double duty

assignment after serving as lyricist only for “West Side Story” and

“Gypsy”. It’s based on the comedies of Platus, circa 200 B.C.,

written for and about the common people, in wild, slapstick format.

And though it’s a product of the early 1960s, don’t be surprised

to hear some very contemporary references in the Newport production.

The beauty of this particular style is that it’s open to the most

modern of concepts, and the current incarnation features a cast more

than capable of cashing in on them. If you have an actor who

resembles Richard Nixon, say, you use it to

glean an extra laugh. And an abundance of cleavage doesn’t hurt,

either.

Bradley Miller revels in the central role of Pseudolus, the

conniving slave seeking his freedom via a series of convoluted

schemes aimed at getting his young, naive master together with the

nubile virgin from the house of courtesans next door. Miller is a

complete howl, from his exhausting physical machinations to the sly,

knowing facial gestures, which work particularly well in a small

theater such as Newport’s.

De Vicariis as the “slave in chief” Hysterium is, well, hysterical

in this short-notice performance as a perennially uptight functionary

drawn into the comical maelstrom. His session in drag, as he

impersonates the blushing virgin, draws the loudest laughter of the

evening, particularly due to his rather hirsute physical appearance.

The bashful young nobleman is nicely interpreted by the tall,

gangling Geoffrey Varga, whose voice cracks appropriately in his

romantic solo. The object of his affection is beautifully enacted by

Brenda Wickeraad, who’s apparently been taking some Jennifer Simpson

lessons to cement her vacuous character.

David Colley oils his way through the role of the flesh peddler

Lycus with melodramatic glee, matching Miller in facial contortions.

David Van Patten scores more subtly as a would-be dirty old man, and

Sherry Domerego is outstanding in her limited stage time as his

suspicious wife.

The conquering Roman warrior captain, Miles Gloriosus, receives a

powerfully adept depiction from Jason Wesley Green, who possesses

both the physical dominance and the vocal depth for this

stage-stealing role.

Sam Piper is quite effective as the wandering old man Erronius.

The Proteans -- “three men who do the work of 30" -- are the comic

workhorses of “Forum” and function as soldiers, slaves, eunuchs,

whatever. Brandon Crisler, Philip Gerard and Jeffrey Haut (the Nixon

look-alike) expel an extraordinary amount of energy to keep the pace

of the show frantic.

Then there are the courtesans -- Julie Rowe, Joanna Tsang, Karynne

Ishino, Valerie Manlongat and Lauren Stone -- a quintet of blossoming

beauties who provide the essential eye candy for the show’s bawdy

comedy. Stone, as the imposing Amazon Gymnasia, is particularly

impressive.

Musical director Bill Wolfe conducts a peppy two-piece orchestra

of keyboard and drums that keeps the tempo humming, and choreographer

Marie Madera has contributed some splendid movements on a stage of

limited dimensions, particularly among the courtesans. Marty

Eckmann’s colorful setting is a most appealing backdrop.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is one of the

musical theater’s brightest comic gems, and it hasn’t been overdone

locally (the last time at the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse some 15

years ago). It’s a veritable three-ring circus at the Newport Theater

Arts Center.

* TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot. His reviews

appear Fridays.


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