Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Porthouse Theatre

(NIck Koesters as Pseudolus has his hands full with courtesan Panacea, played by Linda Mementowski.)

Is a “burlesque” show all rubber chickens and pratfalls? Hardly. The dicey trick with fast-paced farces such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is that the director and actors have to balance manic wackiness with the discipline of staying on script and on point.

In this production at Porthouse Theatre, directed by musical theater maven Terri Kent, the company hits many fine notes, both musical and comedic. But some of the players don’t stretch quite far enough within their characters and, as a result, the laughter they generate is not as rich and satisfying as it might be.

This 1962 Broadway hit has always been popular, since it features a tender love story immersed in the lusty and lascivious atmosphere of ancient Rome, replete with mistaken identities, mistaken edifices and over-the-top characters. A send-up on the farces of Plautus, this musical features a sneaky-brilliant score by Stephen Sondheim and a hilarious book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart.

Even so, this vaudeville-style work needs a handful of actors who can create individuals we can bond with and believe in. Otherwise, all their crazy antics come across more as mildly amusing calisthenics rather than absurd character-driven inevitabilities.

In brief, the slave Pseudolus is trying to win his freedom by helping his master, young Hero, hook up with a virginal (!) courtesan next door named Philia. Of course, the path to true love has many obstacles, including the fact that she has been purchased, sight unseen, by the gallant warrior Miles Gloriosus (an imposing Brian Keith Johnson). Then, Hero’s father Senex arrives and is mistaken by Philia to be her intended master, much to Senex’s libidinous delight (as he notes, he's eager "to sow my one final oat").

Everything gets even more complicated from there, as a gaggle of prostitutes, cringing slaves and eunuchs, and Senex’s harridan wife Domina (Melissa Owens in a Marge Simpson wig and continual harpy dudgeon) all stir the pot to a boil.

In the lead role of Pseudolus, Nick Koesters employs razor-sharp comic timing and a more-than-passable singing voice, finding many laughs in his portrayal of this sly, conniving servant. But Koesters is so polished and confident on stage, his Pseudolus lacks the vulnerable center that drives this drudge to yearn for freedom—a vulnerability that, incidentally, would motivate the audience root for him.

Sarah Roussos brings a grand set of pipes to her songs as Philia, although she doesn’t have enough fun with her character’s intellectual shortcomings, failing to draw all the humor out of her solo “That’ll Show Him.” Her heartthrob Hero is handled well by Brian Duncan, turning in a lovely rendition of “Love, I Hear.”

As Hysterium, the nervous slave of Senex, J.P Makowski quivers incessantly but doesn’t fully explore the sweeter aspects of the role. In a similar manner, Benjamin Czarnota renders the procurer Marcus Lycus with little more than a low-grade sneer, when a more oily and sleazy attitude would be more amusing.

For guidance in how to handle such roles, look no farther than Marc Moritz, who makes Senex a splendidly dirty old man while still seeming adorable and even cuddly. His crooning of “Everyone Ought to Have a Maid,” along with his two slaves and neighbor Lycus, is a highlight of the show. As are the two eunuchs, played by Danny Lindenberger and Dane Castle, who primp, flirt and steal scenes to which they have no legal claim.

A nod of appreciation also goes to musical director Jonathan Swoboda who chose to keep “Pretty Little Picture,” an incidental song that is often cut but which, in this production, has a charm all its own.

In sum, this Funny Thing is plenty funny, it just falls short of being the total romp it might be.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Through June 27 at the Porthouse Theatre,
Blossom Music Center, 1145 W. Steels Corners Road,
Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884

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