Tuesday, May 19, 2009

review of *A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum*

on Spokane Civic Theater's Main Stage through June 14

They only get one actual rimshot from the drummer in the band. They could have gotten 50: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is filled with giggly sex-farce jokes of the ogling kind.

Since its premiere back when JFK was president, Forum has featured the ogling and chuckling of middle-aged men, appraising the girlie-girls while singing early Stephen Sondheim songs. The suits are eyeballing the secretaries. It’s like Mad Men, musicalized and in togas.

Fortunately, the Spokane Civic’s Forum (through June 14) has Jerry Sciarrio in the central witty-slave role of Pseudolus. Sciarrio trips and skips and grimaces, always improvising, always calculating. His arms are crossed in consternation, then he beats himself in frustration; his fingers quiver whenever he’s hatching a new scheme. With his quick-thinking, forehead-slapping, twisting and turning antics, Sciarrio’s Pseudolus is so inventive, so out there in out-thinking his simple-minded masters, that it’s just a delight to observe him. He appeals both to the brain and the funny bone.

His best bits involve silly vaudeville steps with three Roman soldiers. He prances, they prance; he skips, they skip; he executes a five-step Lindy Hop, they fall all over themselves. Literally. It’s intricate, funny stuff for which choreographer Suzanne Ostersmith deserves credit along with the swift-footed Sciarrio. He’s so good that — given his previous seasons’ Nathan Detroit (in Guys and Dolls) and Sgt. Luther Billis (in South Pacific) — Pseudolus feels like the role that Sciarrio was destined to play.

There are other delights as well. Robert Wamsley as Senex — with a reprieve from his domineering wife and a real chance at a beautiful young virgin — is delightfully light on his feet for “Everybody Ought To Have a Maid.” The moments when he’s joined by one, two, three other men — all reveling in harmless fantasizing about the good life — is delightful. Wamsley’s confused sidelong glances during the father-son confusions of “Impossible” enlivened even that less memorable song.

For the sake of the Big Reveal — uncovering David Baker’s exceptional set — director Diana Trotter pays the price (yes, it’s in the script, but let’s have some fun) of isolating Sciarrio and the three overacting Proteans in front of the curtain.

It’s a small-scale, slow opening to what eventually builds into the raucous, energetic and justly famous opening number, “Comedy Tonight.” Why not party from the get-go?

Baker’s colorful and detailed set, evoking antiquity with just a dash of the cartoonish, is worth the surprise. Roman statues loom above slanted roofs, striking the right mix of distinguished and loony.

Gary Pierce has spent years mugging on local stages, but now he has found the role that’s actually suited to them — and it’s a guy named Hysterium. Who runs around in drag. A lot. Frantically. With his eyes bugging out.

Nonetheless, Pierce has some masterful moments: a drawn-out double-take when the mast ... mistress? unexpectedly returns home, along with the entire “dead bride” and macho soldier sequence. (It’s complicated.)

And it’ll be interesting to see if a couple of promising newcomers to Civic — Callie Bley as the airhead, Lauralynn “Lulu” Stafford as the shrewish wife — will reappear in other, less broad roles.

All their antics are in the service of har-har titillation. In the early ‘60s, when being labeled a “fairy” could be a career-killer (or worse), tension over gender roles led to guffaws of release every time a man in drag or a bossy woman showed up. Today, lots of folks have figured out that sexuality’s a continuum, that gender roles aren’t rigid: less tension, less humor.

But c’mon, a man in drag is always funny.

Yes, indeedy, though telling the same joke three times to make sure that we get that the blonde is an airhead? Not so much. These gags aren’t just old, they’re fossilized.

The best laughs arrive when cast and script turn ironic. Being “Lovely” may be all that Bley’s Barbie-doll character can manage, but Sondheim’s swaying tune sheds its condescending tone and revs up the laughs when it’s reprised by Sciarrio and Pierce, who has circles of rouge on his cheeks because he’s wearing a bridal veil. And when Sciarrio is confronted with the gee-whiz enthusiasm of the young male lead (who’s named Hero and played by Jesse Ward), his sarcasm mocks musical-theater conventions. (As the braggart soldier, Shawn Hudson has great fun with self-mockery too.)

Half a century later, I guess we’re less patriarchal and more ironic. But as the audience left the theater after the show, I wasn’t the only one humming about four of Forum’s catchiest tunes: “”Comedy Tonight,” “Lovely” and “Everybody Ought To Have a Maid.” And still laughing over the madcap goofiness of the final door-slamming sequence that Trotter had engineered.
The Civic’s
Forum was an often entertaining production of an often behind-the-times musical.

1 comment:

  1. I saw it and loved it. Good job cast.