Wednesday, November 07, 2001

A Funny Thing Happend on the Way to the Forum

A funny thing happened on the way to the Varsity Theatre. And an even funnier thing happened inside the theatre, as Davis Musical Theatre Company kicked off its 17th season with "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and music by Stephen Sondheim

Director Bobby Grainger addressed the audience before the show began. "I've assembled a wonderful cast," he beamed. He had every right to be proud. The cast for "Forum" is one of the consistently strongest DMTC has seen. It would be difficult to find a weakest link.

Stephen Sondheim's most tuneful musical is a madcap musical sex farce set in ancient Rome and based on the comedies of Plautus (254-182 BC). It's presented as a play within a play and we watch the actors on stage get into character, begin the story, and step out of character from time to time for interaction with the audience.

The story centers around a crafty slave named Pseudolus (Brian K. McCann, Sr.), who desires his freedom and discovers a way to get it.

McCann provides the quality performance DMTC fans have come to expect from an actor who has given such memorable interpretations as Mr. Bumble in "Oliver!" and Juan Peron in "Evita." Pseudolus is the quintessential con artist and McCann plays him to perfection.

Balancing McCann's bombast is Hysterum (Aaron Gaines), the eunich who runs the house of Senex (Steve Isaacson), father of Hero. Gaines gives an interpretation which is believable and just effeminate enough, without going overboard.

Pseudolus' young master, Hero (Jason Stevens), is in love with Philia (Pheonix Vaughn [Derrick--yes it is "Pheonix", not Phoenix], a would-be courtesan (though still a virgin) in the house of Marcus Lycus (David Holmes). Pseudolus makes a bargain with Hero that if he can get Philia for him, Hero will grant his freedom.

The choice of Vaughn to play Philia was a perfect one. With ivory soap clear skin and wide eyes, framed by curly blonde hair and dressed in virginal white, she is the picture of innocence. When she sings "I'm lovely," we believe her.

Philia has already been sold to the great warrior Miles Gloriosus (Jeremiah Lowder), which means Pseudolus has a lot of conniving and weaseling to do if he's going to capture the girl for Hero and win his own freedom. Lowder is an experienced hand at doing "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," as this is his third production of the show. He was previously seen as a protean in one production and in another production as Hero.

Steve Isaacson tickles the funnybone as the henpecked Senex, a dirty old man who wants to sew a few wild oats while his wife Domina (Becky Luther) is out of town. His "Everybody ought to have a Maid" (sung with Pseudolus, Hysterium and Marcus Lycus) is one of the evening's highlights.

Adding to the fun is a series of mistaken identies and interesting chases which resemble a French bedroom farce. And, since this is a comedy, there's a happy ending, of course.

There are no minor roles in this show. The "Proteans," (Clocky McDowell, James Stark, Tim O'Laughlin, Aaron Rogers ) are jacks of all trades, performing all the smaller roles such as citizens and soldiers (but they are particularly effective as cupids) and are very funny.

There is also a houseful of wonderful courtesans--Laura Nelson as Tintinabula, Keri Newton and Kristen Heitman as the Gemini Twins, Lori Jones as Vibrata, Abby Johnson as Panacea and the statuesque Amy Graves, in the tallest-heeled leather boots imaginable, as Gymnasia.

Dick Mangrum as Erronius makes the very most of a small part and each time he appears on stage it is to a bigger laugh.

Mark Allen has created a delightful set, which combines the stately manor of Senex with the wildly decadent brothel of Marcus Lycus, which could easily have been plucked from San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district during the 60s.

As always, the 8-member DMTC orchestra kept the tempos brisk, though there were moments throughout when the volume made it difficult to understand some of the lyrics.

Costumer Jean Henderson had a lot of fun designing this show, with togas for the citizens, military costumes for Miles Gloriosus and his men, and the wonderful costumes for the courtesans. A little body make up could have been used to cover up 21st century tan lines, but it's a minor complaint in an otherwise good looking show.

DMTC has picked a rousing start to its new season. It's a show with no message, except to sit back, relax, and forget about the troubles of the world for a couple of hours. You won't be disappointed.

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