Much humor falls flat with me. Last week, during the 50hr Drive By, other audience members were falling over in the aisles, while I was sitting on my hands. But give me a good farce, and I’m laughing with the best of them. I find farces hilarious, but farces have to be done with skill and perfection to be done right. I’m pleased to say that we saw a great farce last night: Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB).
Now, I’m not unfamiliar with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (henceforth, just A Funny Thing…). I’ve got both the original and the revival cast albums, and I’ve seen the movie a few times — and it never left me laughing. Movie farces are like that: what works on stage falls flat on screen. If an on-screen farce does work, it is typically only “laugh out loud funny” the first viewing. There’s a reason for that. The best farces depend on split second timing, the unexpected performance, the unexpected juxtaposition. There’s that element of danger that things won’t work. With movies, you know they have worked hard to get the best take (after reshoot after reshoot), and you know it will be the same every time. That takes a lot of the fun out of it. Just contrast Noises Off on the screen with it on the stage, and you’ll know which works. Stage productions also have the feedback loop of the actors drawing energy from the audiences, amplifying and sending it back to the audience, who send it back to the actors. That doesn’t happen in front of a screen.
The previous paragraph is a long way of saying the following: First, if you get the chance to see a farce on stage, take it. Second, if you think you know A Funny Thing… because you’ve seen the movie or heard the music, think again. That’s what I thought, and after seeing it, I’ve fallen in love with this show. It is one of those shows that I think will be different in every performance, even with the same actors. In the right hands, it is up there with the best farces.
A good reason for that is it’s pedigree. This was the first show where Stephen Sondheim did both the music and the lyrics, coming off his success as the lyricist for Gypsy. The basic idea for the show — a low-brow comedy for Broadway — was from Burt Shevelove, who had worked on both Broadway and in television. He brought in Larry Gelbart to round out the book; Gelbart was a comedy writer who had written for folks like Jack Paar, Bob Hope, and Danny Thomas. He went on to create the TV show M*A*S*H, and to write movies such as Tootsie and Oh, God. The original production was directed by George Abbott and directed by Harold Prince, and had some doctoring by Jerome Robbins. Robbins famously replaced the problematic opening numbers (there were numerous trials) with Comedy Tonight, a masterpiece of introduction and exposition. The behavior of the leads were established by the astounding original cast, including Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, and David Burns.
The story of A Funny Thing… has a classic farce setup for mistaken identity and chances. It also recognizes out front that it is a play and a comedy, which makes breaking the fourth wall for comedic effect possible. In ancient Rome there are three houses. There is the house of Erronius, a befuddled old man abroad on a quest to find his children, who had been stolen in infancy by pirates. He knows them only by their rings depicting a gaggle of geese. There is the house of Marcus Lycus, a procurer of courtesans. He has a number of ladies in his stable: VIrbrata, Tintinabula, the Geminae twins, Pancea, Gymasia, and Philia, who has been sold to Captain Miles Gloriosus of the Roman Guard. Lastly, there is the house of Senex, an older Roman citizen married to the dominating Domina, and father to the late-teen-aged Hero. Also in the house of Senex are two slaves: Pseudolus (slave to Hero) and Hysterium (slave to Domina). Hero has fallen in love with Philia. Seeing this as an opportunity, Pseudolus gets Hero to agree that he will free Pseudolus if he can get Hero and Philia together. This sets the wheels in motion as Pseudolus schemes to get Philia into the house of Senex, drug her, and get her to the port with Hero while at the same time avoiding the Captain, Lycus, and his master, who has unexpectedly arrived home early. Things go awry, and … therein lies the humor. Let’s just say the the remainder of the story revolved around mistaken identity, chases, female impersonation, split-second timing, and classic vaudeville low-brow humor.
This is a show that requires directorial permission to have fun. If one attempts to get the cast to stick hard and fast to the script, the spontaneity that makes the humor goes out the window. This production was directed by Lewis Wilkenfeld (FB), who seemed to embrace the fun aspect. He assembled a great bunch of comic talent, wound them up, and let them go — while keeping them to the story. He also took great advantage of the change of venue. Unlike most Cabrillo shows, this show was done in the significantly smaller Scheer Forum. This permitted the actors to go through the audience and interact with the audience. This worked extremely well, and I’d almost be leery of Forum in a gigantic venue. Wilkenfeld also permitted a small amount of rejiggering to bring in local references and local humor, which worked quite well.
What truly made this show was the lead, Nick Santa Maria (FB), as Pseudolus. Productions of Forum are often characterized by their leads — and there have been some great ones: the aforementioned Mostel, Phil Silvers, and Nathan Lane. Santa Maria brought in some elements of their performances, but also his own unique humor. I overheard some audience members mentioning that he had done some stand-up, and it was clear in how he played off the audience, played off the other actors both as actors and as his character, and was sharp-witted enough to ad-lib local humor into the situations. Through Santa Maria, you could easily imagine how Mostel stole this show in the original production with the audience interaction. His was just a fun, funny performance, executed well. There were so many favorite scenes, but the one that sticks in my mind is when Miles Gloriosus kept hitting his hat on the arch, and the two riffed back and forth.
Providing principal support to Santa Maria’s Pseudolus were Larry Raben (FB)’s Hysterium and David Ruprecht (FB)’s Senex. Raben brought the right elements of panic and comedy to Hysterium, which were most apparent in the second act scenes, or in his solo number, “I’m Calm”. In some ways, Hysterium is the uptight straight man to Pseudolus, providing the panic reaction to the manic unpredictability. Raben captured that quite well. As Senex, captured the old lecherous man quite well, although there were one or two odd-timings. For the most part, he was quite fun to watch…. especially in “Impossible”.
As the young lovers, Tyler Miclean (FB) [Hero] and Claire Adams (FB) [Philia] have simply drawn characters. Hero is the love-struck naive boy, and Philia is the dumb courtesan (the embodiment of “blond”). They pull these off well; in particular, I enjoyed Adams “dumb” portrayal for its cluelessness (which take work to pull off). They do great on their songs; I particularly enjoyed Miclean in “Impossible” and Adams in “That’ll Show Him”.
In smaller supporting roles were Andrew Metzger (FB) as Marcus Lycus and Matt Merchant (FB) as Miles Gloriosus. We’ve seen Metzger before; he was in the recent ARTS production of Addams Family. He brought the same craziness and humor to his performance here, and was quite fun to watch. Merchant had the right physical shape and presence for his role, and wonderful comic timing that was displayed quite well in his interactions with Santa Maria’s Pseudolus. If there was one weak note, it might be the amplification of Merchant. Especially in “Bring Me My Bride”, Gloriosus’s voice needs to boom. Merchant had the right vocal quality in the number; I think he just needed either a bit more amplification, or a bit stronger projection. But that, overall, is a minor quibble.
Rounding out the supporting characters were Elise Dewsberry (FB)’s Domina and Tom Hall (FB)’s Erronius. Hall’s role is relatively simple: wander around looking befuddled — which he did very well… including during the intermission. Dewsberry’s Domina gets more to do: after a brief introduction in the first act, she gets her own song (“That Dirty Old Man”) and some wonder comic opportunities during the chase. Dewsberry does well with all.
Unlike most Cabrillo musicals, this show does not have the gigantic ensemble and children’s chorus. There are two ensemble-ish aspects. First, there are the courtesans of the House of Marcus Lycus: Beth Alison (FB) [Vibrata], Julie Alice Auxier (FB) [Tintinabula], Kai Chubb (FB) and Janelle Loren [the Geminae twins], Amy Lenhardt/FB [Panacea], and Anne Montavon (FB) [Gymnasia]. These are primarily dancing and movement roles; they have no lines and sing as part of full cast numbers. However, they play the comedy and dance well (and look beautiful as well). Also ensemble-ish are the three proteans (Marcus S. Daniel (FB), Jake Novak (FB), and Pablo Rossil (FB)), who play numerous roles throughout the show — eunuchs, soldiers, citizens, and many more. They do this, and they do it with a wonderful comic flair.
This is not the type of show that has big splashy dance numbers (Sondehim’s shows rarely are), but there is still a fair amount of individual dance (especially during “The House of Marcus Lycus”, where each courtesan gets their own unique dance), and lots of choreographed movement in various sequences such as the opening, Marcus Gloriosus’s entrance, and the funeral, chase, and finale sequences. This choreography was well designed by John Charron (FB), assisted by Kai Chubb (FB). The music was under the direction of Lloyd Cooper (FB), the musical director and conductor of the on-stage behind-house band, which consisted of Lloyd Cooper (FB) [Piano, Keyboard], Gary Rautenberg (FB) [Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet, Alto Sax], Darryl Tanikawa (FB) [Clarinet, Alto Sax], Ian Dahlberg (FB) [Tenor Sax, Clarinet]; Matt Germaine (FB) [Baritone Sax, Bass Clarinet, Clarinet], Bill Barrett (FB) [Trumpet, Flugelhorn], Shane Harry (FB) [Double Bass], and Alan Peck [Set Drums, Percussion]. Darryl Tanikawa (FB) was the orchestra contractor, and Darryl Archibald (FB) was the music supervisor. The orchestra was produced by Tanikawa Artists Management LLC.
The set was provided by Off Broadway West, and consisted mostly of flats and buildings. It worked reasonably well for the Scheer Forum space. Supporting props were designed by Alex Choate (FB). Sound was by regular Cabrillo sound designer Jonathan Burke (FB) and was mostly excellent as usual; I would have amplified Matt Merchant just a tad more in order to give him more boom and power. The lighting by James Smith III (FB) worked well in establishing place and time. The wardrobe from The Theatre Company (FB) in Upland was supervised by Christine Gibson; hair and makeup design was by Cassie Russek (FB). Both worked well, and was suitably creative (although I did have some concern about cultural appropriation — I think I’ve become sensitized to it, just as I’ve become sensitized to a need for diversity on the stage, and was wondering here why the courtesans, at least, couldn’t have been more diverse). Remaining significant production credits: Jack Allaway [Technical Director]; Vernon Willet (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; Tawni Eccles (FB) and Samantha Whidby [Assistant Stage Managers]. Cabrillo Music Theatre is under the artistic direction of Lewis Wilkenfeld (FB).
The Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues at the Scheer Forum in Thousand Oaks until February 14, 2016. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster. Discount tickets are available through Goldstar. Go. It is one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in a long time.
Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) just announced their 2015-2016 season. You can find my thoughts on it here. We plan to resubscribe. Cabrillo is a special theatre in Southern California: it doesn’t do tours of these shows. Rather, these are professional regional productions with regional performers and regional directors. Often, the actors trained at Cabrillo go on to bigger things (I was going to say better, but that’s more of an “in the eyes of the beholder” issue). The regional aspect is important. On the Pantages season this year is The Book of Mormon. I have no desire to see it there — I saw the tour when it first came through. Why see that interpretation again? But if Cabrillo did it, I’d be right there. It is special to see these shows reinterpreted creatively with local production teams and local talents. If you live in Southern California, they are really worth exploring.
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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres: The Colony Theatre (FB), Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), and I just added the Hollywood Pantages (FB). In 2015, my intimate theatre subscription was at REP East (FB), although they are reorganizing and (per the birides) will not start 2016 shows until August. I may move the subscription to The Group Rep (FB), or I may just get individual tickets there through Goldstar. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: February theatre starts on Saturday, February 6 with Empire: The Musical at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) — this gives us not only the chance to see a dear friend (Sheri F.) who doesn’t attend as much LA theatre as she used to, but a favorite performer (Kevin Earley). The next day brings “An Act of God” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). There’s a rare mid-week performance on February 9 of The Jason Moran Fats Waller Dance Party at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The following weekend brings the Southern California premiere of the musical Dogfight at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim Hills. The third weekend in February is currently open, but that is likely to change. February closes with The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March starts with “Man Covets Bird” at the 24th Street Theatre (FB) on March 6 (the day after the MRJ Man of the Year dinner) The second weekend of March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB). The third weekend of March takes us back to the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) to see Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina. The last weekend of March is being held for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). April will start with Lea Salonga at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 1 and an Elaine Boosler concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom on April 2. It will also bring the Turtle Quintet at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB), “Children of Eden” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) , and our annual visit to the Renaissance Faire (Southern). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.