Los Angeles Theater Review: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (Cabrillo Music Theatre in Thousand Oaks)

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by Tony Frankel on January 30, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles

A FUNNY AND NOT-SO FUNNY THING

Nick Santa Maria and Amy LenhardtAn irresistible mix of Roman “new comedy,” commedia dell’arte, and vaudeville, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum rivals The Producers as the funniest musical comedy ever. Cabrillo Music Theatre’s tame-yet-still-diverting revival is fine for the first-time visitor to this once and future 1962 smasheroo. The gags here are more hit-and-miss than the average Forum redux, and it often feels like silly shtick instead of inspired and skilled lunacy. But with the lead role, Pseudolus, in the hands of Nick Santa Maria, even those seasoned Funny Thingers accustomed to the jokes will love his timeless cavalcade of classic burlesque; he’s a truly great performer who is a joy to watch.

Brilliant yuksters Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart combined forces with a young and still melody-mad Stephen Sondheim to shamelessly steal from copyright-free Plautus (251-183 BC). These merry pranksters transmogrified the ancient comic’s Pseudolus, Miles Gloriosus and Mostellaria into the perfect farce with music. Originally intended for Phil Silvers, who rejected it as “Sgt. Bilko in a tunic” (but who won a Tony when he starred in the first Broadway revival in 1972), the gutbusting plot focuses on the house slave Pseudolus: This superb trickster will do anything to win his freedom from his young master Hero.

Nick Santa Maria, Tom Hall, Larry Raben

It makes total sense that it all happens on a day in spring, when the Roman Republic hadn’t yet gone global. Hero (Tyler Miclean, perfect in voice and stature) has fallen for self-confessed airhead Philia (Claire Adams, also perfect in voice and stature), a newly arrived and still virginal courtesan who resides next door in the libidinous House of Lycus (Andrew Metzger, looking like a Goth sheik). A lot of eyes are undressing Philia, so Pseudolus’s shenanigans involve a delightful campaign of altered identities and strategic deceptions. To secure Hero’s affections, Pseudolus bamboozles everyone in sight with whiplash prevarications, magic potions, gender-bending disguises, and chases. The gag is that Pseudolus’s plethora of plans perpetually puts him in a pickle.

Nick Santa MAria, Larry Raben, David Ruprecht and Andrew Metzger

Claire Adams, Tyler Miclean, Nick Santa Maria

With a Midas touch for turning everything into laughs, Santa Maria’s rubber-faced, manically mugging Pseudolus combines wizard timing, toxic zingers, swift asides, slapstick, double takes, pratfalls, slow burns, and more punch lines than seem possible to make this super servant an epicenter of hilarity. Director Lewis Wilkenfeld gives free reign to his star to ad-lib and crack local references more than any other production of Forum I’ve seen; as such, some sight gags are too loosely structured to bust a gut and, frankly, some of the other players aren’t equipped with the wherewithal to keep up with the brilliant farceur. Fortunately, the songs – the Burlesque quartet “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” the father and son duet “Impossible,” and the braggart soldier’s “Bring Me My Bride” – are done as is and remain utterly enthralling.

Matt Merchant and Company

Santa Maria’s genius jester is backed up by deft zanies, a clown chorus called The Proteans (Marcus S. Daniel, Jake Novak, Pablo Rossil) who never met a costume they couldn’t change. Pompously protected by procurer Lycus, The Proteans’ female equivalents are six goodtime girls; these are Geminae (Kai Chubb, Janelle Loren), Tintinabula (Julie Alice Auxier), Panacea (Amy Lenhardt), Vibrata (Beth Alison) and Gymnasia (Anne Montavon). While the names alone are sidesplittingly predictive, these physically gifted mistresses execute John Charron’s funny and athletic choreography with hamstring-stretching delight.

Larry Raben and Nick Santa Maria

In no time and in a hundred ways, split-second Pseudolus manages to outfox, manipulate, transform or hoodwink his anal retentive fellow-slave Hysterium (a downplayed but always adorable Larry Raben), his master’s horny paterfamilias and “dirty old man” Senex (a weak and cue-missing David Ruprecht — perhaps an off night), Senex’ Medusa-like wife Domina (Elise Dewsberry, a Roman matron in low fustian), and the blustering warrior Miles Gloriosus (Matt Merchant, easily towering over the cast in both stature and performance). Finally, there’s a forlorn father Erronius (a scene-stealing Tom Hall), who lives on the other side of Hero’s home; seeking his children stolen by pirates, this gull is fooled into circling the seven hills of Rome seven times in what is drama’s first and most literal running joke.

Andrew Metzger, Nick Santa MAria, and Tyler Miclean

Lloyd Cooper’s musical direction is sterling on gold; he got a huge sound out of the 8-member downsized orchestra. While apparently from other productions, Wardrobe Supervisor Christine Gibson’s caricaturing costumes are well selected, Megan Truscott’s cartoon set never shudders during all of those entrances and exits, and Alex Choate’s props deliver solid sight gags (especially a peg leg). Forum is indeed, to quote one of its songs, a “Pretty Little Picture; No! Pretty little masterpiece.” This production may have missed the comic boffo mark, but Misters Santa Maria and Merchant kept the laughs coming.

FUNNY THING HAPPENED - NICK - PREphotos by Ed Krieger

A Funny Thing Happened
on the Way to the Forum
Cabrillo Music Theatre
Scherr Forum at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8;
Sun at 2; Wed at 1 on Feb. 10
ends February 14, 2016
for tickets, call 800-745-3000 or visit Cabrillo

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