Something appealing in bravura production of Sondheim's `Forum'

March 20, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim may have spent recent decades exploring thorny fare like tenuous relationships (Company), murder (Assassins) and happily-ever-afters gone bad (Into the Woods), but he sure kicked up his heels in his youth.

The romp I'm referring to is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a delightfully shticky bit of musical mayhem about a conniving slave out to win his freedom back in the Rome of the Caesars.

Currently in production by the Pasadena Theatre Company on the main stage of the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park, Forum is a joy when performed with the gusto of vaudeville skits from years gone by. For while its score is unmemorable save for the catchy opening, "Comedy Tonight," the hyperactive scheming and scamming undertaken by Pseudolus the slave is something to behold if the comic energy flows with the proper force.

It crackles here thanks to Pasadena's artistic director, Chuck Dick, who treats the lead role as a license to steal and commits grand larceny in scene after scene with a wide assortment of voices, lust-filled leers and impeccably timed audience asides.

"A great idea!" Pseudolus exclaims, piquing the interest of both cast and audience to hear his latest scheme. "That's what we need," he says a comic beat later, "a great idea."

He also sings with commendable vigor, no small achievement in light of the spectacularly bad musical accompaniment we'll discuss momentarily.

All of the lead voices are first rate, especially Patrick Martyn, who plays Hero, the empty-headed lad who falls for the innocent young lovely ensconced incongruously in the brothel next door.

Also attractive is soprano Lauren Schein as Philia, the equally dense object of Hero's affection. Their "Lovely" duet was a delight.

The other noteworthy voice belongs to Todd Krickler, whose deep tones are perfect for Miles Gloriosus, the egomaniacal general who has contracted to buy the girl that Hero would claim as his own. His "Bring Me My Bride" was a delightful blend of comedy and formidable vocal technique.

Eliciting screams of laughter was Douglas Kotula as Hysterium, the hyperventilating slave who winds up feigning femininity (in an adorable blond wig, no less) as part of Pseudolus' plot to win Philia for Hero and gain his own freedom in the process. His "I'm Calm," delivered on the verge of hysteria as indeed it should be, was a comic highlight of the show.

Other giggles come by way of Anthony Anzalone as Lycus, Rome's premier purveyor of illicit carnality, the formidable Linda Swann as Hero's imperious mother, Domina, and Harold Gibbs Slentz-Whalen, who is hilariously laid back as Senex, Hero's lecherous but wimpy father.

Kudos also to Paul Clary. His brief bits as Erronius, the befuddled old man making his way seven times around Rome's seven hills, add much laughter to the proceedings.

As it heads into its second weekend, Pasadena's Forum could use some tightening, as there were too many muffed lines and cues for a cast of this quality.

The biggest flaw -- and it's a hard one to take -- is the woefully unprepared brass section of the live band.

Given the obvious fact that the three trumpets and single trombone couldn't begin to play their parts properly, one has to wonder why the overture and the uneventful entr'acte weren't scotched altogether. Ungainly splats were heard in many other songs as well.

Ironically, a decent ensemble could have been cobbled together with drums, flute, bass and piano (all of which were good), along with maybe one of the trumpets allowed to kick in a manageable riff here and there.

As the Roman Empire learned too late to save itself, discretion can indeed be the better part of valor.

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" plays at the Chesapeake Arts Center tomorrow through Sunday, March 28 and March 30. Please call 410-636-6597. The Chesapeake Arts Center is at 194 Hammonds Lane in Brooklyn Park.

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