Comedy tomorrow, maybe?
How could it miss? The cast is a virtual A-list of the best comic actors in Seattle. The show is the product of comedy writing genius, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shrevelove, channeling the spirit of Plautus, the Roman playwright who all but invented the types and gimmicks of situation comedy, that most familiar and foolproof genre. The music and lyrics are the first full show score by Stephen Sondheim, who may have gone on to write much more difficult and significant music, but even here stands high above most of his contemporaries. The comedy itself has not only proven itself on countless stages at every level for decades now, but is a virtual grammar of what's remained funny since about 2,000 years ago. Expertly melding its low comedy with the conventions of burlesque; lascivious appetites, bumbling lechery, ludicrous complications, pretentious hypocrisy, and an abundance of female pulchritude, we're even given a wisp of innocent romance. All that, and the high quality production values that characterize the 5th Avenue Musical Theatre.
And it all just sits there. Or, to be more accurate, we just sit there, while the talent works so very hard to be funny and clever and adorable. I've seen this show in college and community theatre productions where you could barely hear the lines for all the laughter, where big gags caused tidal waves of response. But on opening night of this production, the laughs were periodic and isolated, almost always a predictable, obvious reaction, rather than surprised delight. Songs were reasonably well sung, but except for a rousing finale, there was rarely that electricity that makes this kind of musical theatre razzle-dazzle exciting. And I was almost never able to see past the expertise of acting technique to find any sort of amazement or invention or spontaneity. Certainly, there were pleasures to be found in the work of so many talented individuals, but this was a show where the less you know about what they're doing, and how, the more you're likely to be able to enjoy it. That's ironic, too, because this show doesn't really require any sort of authenticity, just the ability to make schtick seem fresh and delightful. You're not expected to really care about anybody in this play, or to believe that any of the situations have any consequence beyond entertainment, but it does have to keep the customers satisfied, and for me that means there has to be real vitality, as well as virtuosity.
David Scully has all the technical tools an actor could want, and a particular gift for connecting with an audience. But as Prologus, our guide to these festivities, Mr. Scully never convinced me that he was a carny, pulling us off the sidewalk and into his sideshow. The physical gags in the opening number felt mechanical and overplayed. This actor has a contemporary, street-wise manner that's very appealing, but felt wrong for the poor schlub, Pseudolus, whose greatest strength should be his ability to connive and survive. He seemed too modern, too disconnected from the action, too young and too confident. When he steps entirely out of the action in the second act, improvising from other Sondheim shows and even hawking for upcoming 5th Avenue productions, it felt perfectly suited to his style, but didn't have much to do with this show, or anything else, really. As a singer, he was adequate, but hardly powerful. The issue of achieving his freedom from slavery never really had much strength for me, mostly because I never believed he was enslaved.
Some other fine actors had similar problems. R. Hamilton Wright may be the most versatile actor in Seattle, but nothing about his Hysterium felt really finished. When he does the drag comedy as one of the several versions of the maiden in white, it was an out of the can visit to "Charley's Aunt", and about as fresh. Of course, this kind of effeminacy as laughing stock is hopelessly dated, but so is most of the ridiculous heterosexuality built around the courtesans, whose primary job is to wear "sexy" costumes and be ogled by men made instantly idiotic in their presence. Both conventions lock the jokes into a burlesque mentality, which can certainly still be funny, if not particularly respectable. What they have to achieve, however, is some sense of being outrageous, rude and uninhibited. It doesn't happen. Instead, it all seems crude, conventional and pandering.
The romance between the smitten young Hero (Tom Plotkin) and the virgin Philia (Billie Wildrick) had no romantic spark whatsoever, and their song "Lovely" played as ordinary and threadbare rather than comically enchanted, filmy and wistful. The gifted John Procaccino was unable to bring anything more to the role of Lycus, buyer and seller of female flesh, than an emcee's ability to display the merchandise. Even the wonderful "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" was only adequate, and certainly not a free-flying romp, as it should have been. Suzy Hunt was all but lost under a ton of ugly wife makeup, and she hit every note of that haranguing and fearsome nightmare, but while it was perfectly accurate, it was anything but distinctive. The impossibly vain and self-important Miles Gloriosus was played by the imposing Timothy McCuen Piggee, but I was more impressed by the costume than the characterization, which was all posture and declamation. Only Clayton Corzatte, with the perfect running gag of his seven laps around the seven hills of Rome, and Jeff Steitzer. as the henpecked and yearning Senex, managed to transcend and enrich the material. Steitzer, in particular, had exactly the tone and delivery to make his seedy intentions and hilarious inadequacy fit the burlesque style.
"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is a forty year old show, but it belongs to a classic comedy tradition, by way of a bygone theatrical style, all invigorated and reinvented by contemporary talent. I guarantee that when this show is done well, you will laugh so loud and so long that you'll forget that it probably offends a lot of values you hold in more sober moments. Such is the nature of comedy, of the truly subversive laugh. But not from this production. By the time I got back out on the sidewalk, I realized this was a production of "Forum" that I would only remember as a gathering of terrific talent who had all been much better in other shows.
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