Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Theatre Review

Bruce Dow as Pseudolus. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Bring on the Lovers, Liars and Clowns!

It took Bruce Dow about 30 seconds to win over the Opening Night audience at Sidney Harman Hall for Alan Paul's brilliant adaptation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: It took half that time to win me over. Dow is sensational as the self-deprecating narrator/star of the show... a man completely at ease with tossing babies (baby dolls... you can relax) or playing a soothsayer with unrivaled panache. He's the ultimate guide for Paul's "tour of hilarity," a modern twist on the works of Roman playwright Plautus... and further evidence, that time stands still for good comedy.

By all accounts, Forum is a modern play... just 51 years removed from its Tony Award-winning Best Musical debut in Broadway. It's a simple (yet decadent) premise... Ancient Rome. Three neighboring houses. A Hero (literally), his faithful servant Pseudolus, courtesans, Roman soldiers and even a scooter-riding old man in search of his long-lost children (stolen by pirates, no less.) OK, not so simple; but you get the picture.

That picture gets sharper with every moment Dow's on stage. He facilitates most of the action, getting the most out of his love-stricken master Hero (played with Jon Heder-like charm by Nick Verina) in an attempt to secure his own freedom. To say he's a joy to behold, is an undersell of the worst order: He actually outperforms Cameron Folmar, who's turn in STC's previous show Measure for Measure was my favorite of the year... until last night. No easy feat.

Steve Vinovich, Bruce Dow, Tom Story and  Danny Rutigliano (r). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

At its heart, Forum is a story of boy meets girl next door... albeit with a few twists and turns. It's hard not to like all the characters... even though most of them care for nothing, save themselves. Paving the way is Tom Story as "Slave-in-Chief," who boasts, 'I live to grovel,' minutes before whipping out a folding shopping cart to go to the market (big laughs.) Tube socks and all, he reminds me of The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons... only less secure in his geekdom. His off-stage exchange with Dow drew the biggest laugh of the night, when the latter commented, 'That went so much smoother in rehearsal,' after swiping a book of potions from Hysterium (Story.)

Matthew Bauman, Edward Watts and Blakely Slaybaugh (r). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Lora Lee Gayer delights as Philia, the object of Hero's affection... and a girl who has trouble with the numbers three and five (literally.) 'I hope that Captain (Miles Gloriosus) doesn't expect me to add things up.' Trust me Philia, solving math equations isn't high on his wish list. She pops in and out of scenes with a dimwitted burst of energy that's as infectious, as it is funny. Hats off to Watts too, for oozing power (no thanks to his padded pants) amidst a jelly-like cast: He lends an air of authority to an otherwise whimsical production.

While I'm at it, let's tip our hat to Steve Vinovich as Hero's sleazy father Senex, who has eyes for Philia... and disdain for his wife Domina (Julie Johnson) 'Never fall in love during a total eclipse.' Last but not least, Danny Rutigliano does a bang-up job as Marcus Lycus, AKA the "Merchant of Love," who takes sheer delight in showcasing his stable of lovelies. How lovely? The Geminae twins provide, 'an infinite number of mathematical possibilities,' while Gymnasia (Jennifer Frankel) dazzles as 'a giant stage, on which a thousand dreams can be played.' If you like numbers, you've come to the right place.

Nick Flatto (background) Jennifer Frankel and Bruce Dow (r). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Director (and local boy) Alan Paul doesn't miss a chance to engage his audience in laughter, even if some of the jokes are easy (i.e. Hysterium's "erotic pottery collection.") Set design (James Noone) is simple; but the House of Lycus literally lights up the stage. Costume designer David C. Woolard packs plenty into his outfits (prosthetic tummies leap to mind) and you couldn't ask for better sound (Jason Tratta.) Even Dow took time to praise the sound that the dropping babies make when they hit the floor.

Keep in mind, Forum is a musical; and has its fair share of songs... not all of them good. ""Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" goes on forever, adding players as it goes on (and on, and on.) Story's ""I'm Calm" put me in the mood for a snooze... Thankfully, it ended just in time for yet another winning sight gag (Harry A. Winter as Erronius, the aforementioned scooter-rider who plays a pivotal part in the second act.)

Forum runs almost 2 1/2 hours (Part 1-85 minutes, Part 2-45 minutes) with a 15-minute intermission. It runs through January 5th: Tickets start at $20, and are available at the Sidney Harman Hall box office or online (click here.) If you like to laugh, you won't be disappointed.

Grade: B+