Phoenix Theater musical brings laughs, togas to stage

September 13, 1992|By Charlotte Moler | Charlotte Moler,Contributing Writer

If you have a thing for guys in togas, or you're just in the mood for a zany Roman romp, you're in luck. Phoenix Festival Theater is pulling out all the stops in "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum" through Sept. 20 at Bel Air High School.

The bawdy 1962 comedy is notable for being the first stage show with both music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. PFT patrons voted to see this particular musical in a poll taken last season. Judging from the preview audience's response, they won't be disappointed.

Good comedy is hard work, and this cast really worked up a sweat. Director Todd Starkey has assembled some of the area's most talented actors. All the leads were top-notch, and even minor characters had some hilarious moments.

It must be said that the Bel Air High School auditorium, temporary home of the Phoenix while renovations continue at Harford Community College, is a dreary place to stage a comedy. But the challenge was well-met by the Phoenix production team, whose set, costumes and lighting brightened the drab proscenium stage almost beyond recognition.

Dan Long should be applauded for his fabulous set design, an eye-popping 3-D cartoon, crammed with arches and doorways, columns and balconies, all done up in bright primary colors.

Forum's plot revolves around the fate and fortunes of three Roman households, whose occupants' lives become intertwined, then hopelessly entangled.

Pseudolus, a servant in pursuit of his freedom, is the storyteller and chief troublemaker. He strikes a deal with his master's son Heroto procure his lady love in exchange for freedom. When the lady turns out to be a virgin in Lycus' House of Courtesans, all manner of complications arise.

Perhaps an epidemic of opening-night jitters was responsible for the shaky start of Thursday evening's performance. Led by John W. Ford as Pseudolus, the company number "Comedy Tonight" was a little sloppy, with an irritating excess of mugging and posing.

But happily, Mr. Ford soon ceased mugging, got into a groove and began playing off the audience. By the end of Act I, he was on a roll.

His comic timing was flawless, and once toned down, the wisecracks and exasperated double takes were not only funny, they took on the rhythm of a vaudeville drummer's "da-dum," punching up each joke and driving the pace.

Sparkling performances were also turned in by Mary Elizabeth Wright as the imperious Domina, George Maranto as the impossibly naive Hero, and Michael Stricker as Lycus, the greedy neighborhood pimp.

The hardest-working actor on stage had to be Eyvo Johnson in the role of the servant Hysterium. As the name suggests, Hysterium is rather a nervous fellow. Johnson took this single trait and composed a comical symphony of vocal squeaks and physical quirks so complex it boggles the mind.

Jack Shaum, the WBAL radio news anchor, plays the vain Captain Glorioso. His booming voice is perfect for barking out orders.

The climax of the show was a vaudevillian chase sequence that was beautifully blocked by Todd Starkey. When the dust finally settled and the cast assembled for the Finale Ultimo, the inevitable question came up. What does it all mean?

As Pseudolus and friends sang so well, "Morals tomorrow, comedy tonight!"

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