IT'S COMEDY TONIGHT

REVIEW: Huntington troupe makes                                                                                
'Funny Thing' happen with '60s vaudeville-style
musical comedy.

By Eric Marchese                                                                                             

Special to the Register

    Those of you who don't get what the '60s musical comedy "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is about, the title tells all: The show may be set in ancient Rome, but its true subject is theater.
    More specifically, in fact, it's musical theater - raucous, outrageous burlesque the prevailed on the American stage during the vaudeville era, before thelikes of Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein tamed the stage and gave it meaningful dramatic form.
    Indeed, the opening number of "Forum," in a lively revival at Huntington Beach Playhouse, tells you exactly what the show's aims are: the entire cast, 18 strong, belts out that you'll be seeing a "Comedy Tonight".  Banish all thoughts of heavy thespian activities.  You are here to guffaw, right along with the actors.
    Director Gregory Cohen recognizes that the Sheveldove-Gelbart script is insufficiently funny to survive on its own, needing a creative hand to embellish it.  Many of Cohen's contributions at HBP are in the form of throw-away visuals: a lost character appears brandishing the "Thomas Guide to the Seven Hills," while another headed for the waterfront, appears wrapped in a towel marked "Motel VI.".  (The towel thing was MY idea *Kevin) 
    Much of this show's comically anachronistic shtick fits the needed vaudevuille style:  When one of Lycus' animalistic charges displays her savagery, the pit band breaks into a chorus of "Born Free."  Fearing a plague, Lycus sprays his door with Lysol.  And Cohen's Proteans (Stephen Ridl, Damian Lorton and Tony Lucero) are positively heroic - whether playing whinnying, ninnyish eunuchs, Popeye-like Roman sailors or slaves whose every grovel speaks "we're not worthy," they function as the HBP staging's all purpose Greek chorus of stooges. 

    This creativity goes a long way toward disguising deficiencies in casting.  The kind of mile-a-minute scheming and brainstorming the drives the slave Pseudolus - and, therefore, the entire plot of "Forum" - is absent from Michael David's portrail.  His Pseudolus is a daffy dolt whose schemes come out of the blue.  David doesn't so much sing his songs as croak them.  This may be defended as comic counterpoint, but it does little to enhance the show's musical side. 
    Darren Buckels is a gloriously narcissistic swashbuckler as Miles Gloriosus, but this swaggering Roman army captain should tower over Pseudolus, not vice versa.
    As chief slave Hysterium, a little bit of Daryl Mendenson's Martin Short-like fussing and snorting goes a long way.  But the rare work of Jerry Booth and Amy Cook excels in both comedy and musical departments.  His eyes popping, Booth revels in Senex's lasciviousness.  Cook makes the airhead ingenue Philia's idiocy oddly charming.  As her lover and Senex's son, the lovestruck Hero, Kevin Noonchester is ideally ingenuous.  His vocal work is among the best the show has to offer.
    The musical aspect of "Forum" is generally well-handled by musical director Kysa Cohen, who communicates her appreciation of the parody love ode "Lovely" to her cast.  She does the same for "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" and "Impossible," which feature the kind of clever Sondheim lyrics so typical of his later shows.
    It's no coincidence that Booth, Noonchester and Cook figure prominently in all three numbers.  Yet the music in the "Forum" clearly takes a back seat to the in-jokes, double-takes and roughhousing, which seem to be enjoyed by only about half the cast.

Orange County Register January 27 1996