REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Laurel and Hardy must be smiling in the comedy Valhalla. Cabrillo Music Theatre’s near-perfect production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which opened last night at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza’s Scherr Forum, brings back the classic, broad humor from vaudeville, performed by an inspired cast of crazies who not only aren’t afraid of anything going wrong, but are probably HOPING for mishaps that would destroy any other show. This is, of course, because Forum is one of those shows where spontaneity and the unexpected is almost as obligatory as Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s uproarious script and Stephen Sondheim’s witty lyrics.
From the moment Nick Santa Maria, as the freedom-yearning slave, Pseudolus, makes his initial appearance, he has the audience in the palms of his hands. Santa Maria’s entrance, as Pseudolus, interrupted director Lewis Wilkenfeld, who was in the middle of one of his sometimes lengthy show introductions. Wilkenfeld is unceremoniously hustled off stage, in mid-fundraising mock protest, by the show’s three proteans, and the Roman roller coaster ride that is Forum begins.
Santa Maria’s Pseudolus is closer to Nathan Lane than it is to Zero Mostel, but you can see elements of both in his performance, as well as dollops of Lou Costello, Phil Silvers (as Sgt. Bilko), and a myriad of other classic funnymen from the Golden Age of Comedy. In one flurry, he rattles off dead-on, successive impressions of Curly Howard, Redd Foxx, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson, all while staying perfectly in character. Santa Maria’s Pseudolus is impish rather than brash; cute instead of sly. Nothing is wasted in his performance; he’s even developed a prissy, shuffling walk that reminds one of Jack Lemmon as Daphne in Some Like It Hot, that makes all of his entrances and exits that much funnier. Santa Maria leads the cast in the show’s best-known number, “Comedy Tonight,” in which each of the major characters is introduced and the prospects for the evening’s pastiche of comedy mayhem are proclaimed.
David Ruprecht is terrific as Senex, the henpecked husband who lusts after the comely courtesans of the House of Lycus, the local brothel. Senex is married to the shrewish Domina, played by Elise Dewsberry, who firmly establishes her character with her very first word: “Sennnnnn-EX!” sounding like, for those of you old enough to remember, Henry Aldrich’s mother in the classic 1940s radio sitcom, The Aldrich Family. Cross-eyed and bellowing like a bull moose, Dewsberry is uproarious in her Act II opener, “That Dirty Old Man.”
Larry Raben, who plays Hysterium, the straw boss slave in the house of Senex, must have been reincarnated from the glory days of silent comedy. A throwback to the great stone face of Buster Keaton and the childlike charm of Harry Langdon, Raben is a gifted pantomimist, and in his scenes with Santa Maria, comic magic results. It should be noted that Raben and Santa Maria are used to working with one another; they’ve teamed up on numerous shows in the past, including The Producers, The Odd Couple, and Sugar, the musical version of Some Like It Hot. At one point, they engage in a hilarious game of linguistic charades, á la Harpo and Chico Marx, that had the audience howling with laughter. Raben is also a skillful physical comedian, and peppers his performance with lithe dance steps and pratfalls that are brilliantly executed.
Matt Merchant almost steals the show from the veteran comics already mentioned with his perfect portrayal of the vainglorious Roman soldier, Miles Gloriosus, who is so pompous, that in his song “Bring Me My Bride” he pronounces, “I am a parade!” Merchant gets the award for the best pratfall in the show, which is so astonishingly natural that it had the audience gasping in delight. His cartoonish portrayal of Gloriosus is in the grandest tradition of other egocentric, biceps-kissing brutes that include Gaston in Beauty and the Beast.
The younger actors match up perfectly with their more experienced castmates, especially Claire Adams as Philia, Tyler Miclean as Hero, and Andrew Metzger as Marcus Lycus. Adams combines a winsome sexiness with a flair for comedy that has made her a versatile character actress since her recent graduation from USC’s School of Dramatic Arts. In addition, she is a marvelous singer, and is charming as well as funny in her duet with Miclean, “Lovely.”
The character of Hero has little to do except appear love-smitten in the show, but the boyish Miclean elevates Hero into an effective foil for Santa Maria and Adams; he is especially funny in his duets with Santa Maria (“Free”) and Ruprecht (“Impossible”).
Andrew Metzger is simply one of the most gifted natural comics seen on Ventura County stages in a long, long time. A recent graduate of California State University Channel Islands, Metzger is a combination of Zero Mostel and John Belushi, capable of mugging his way into and out of any situation. Nothing throws him; his mind his quick and agile, and his pliable face is capable of a multitude of expressions, each eyebrow working independently of one another and eyes bulging. He actually revels in the unexpected, as when Santa Maria’s microphone pre-amp fell from his waistband, which set Metzger’s creative juices in motion.
In the vaudeville number “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” Santa Maria, Raben, and Ruprecht finish their trio together and are then joined by Metzger for the final chorus. It is amazing to see how seamlessly Metzger blends in with the three veterans as if he were the fourth Stooge. Yet, as much of a scene stealer as Metzger is, he is confident enough in his own abilities to know his place in this show and does not upstage Santa Maria or the other actors. Restrained but still funny as hell, Andrew Metzger is a face to watch, and watch, and watch.
In smaller, but no less effective roles, Tom Hall is delightful as the befuddled Erronius, an ingenious bit of casting if only for his long, flowing white beard that makes him look like Moses wandering through the desert. The trio of proteans, Jake Novak, Pablo Rossil, and especially the towering Marcus S. Daniel, provide much of the physical comedy, most notably in their roles as Gloriosus’ stumblebum foot soldiers, who look like they received their close order training from John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks.
Lloyd Cooper leads the outstanding orchestra, located on stage behind one of the three Roman houses. Musical and percussive stings that coincide with lines delivered on stage were hit-and-miss, but it didn’t matter. With Santa Maria in charge, if one misfired, he would simply say, “Do that again!” and it would become even funnier the second time around. Christine Gibson supervised the superb array of togas and tunics while John Charron created the outstanding choreography, most notably the moves exhibited by the nubile gyrations of Marcus Lycus’s courtesans, played by Beth Alison (Vibrata), Kai Chubb and Janelle Loren (the Geminae twins), Amy Lenhardt (Panacea), Anne Montavon (Gymnasia), and especially, the wondrously skilled Julie Alice Auxier as Tintinabula.
The company utilizes the space of the Scherr Forum well, cracking jokes about the almost militaristic protection of the walkways on the sides of the stage, and even incorporating ushers and stage hands into the physical shtick. There are ample locally relevant ad-libs, including references to Oxnard (always an easy laugh), Thousand Oaks, and the alternate usage of the venue as the chambers for Thousand Oaks’ weekly City Council meetings (featuring a barge-on, rather than walk-on, cameo by Ray Mastrovito as an enraged resident speaker – Ray promises a different reason for his stage intrusion at every performance).
Ad-libs fly left and right, including contemporary references to Star Wars, cell phones (a well-placed Santa Maria pun, musing about “Roman charges”), and, of course, Donald Trump. The cast, especially Santa Maria, make good use of the audience in their shenanigans, singling out patrons in the front row, wandering through the theater, and even interrupting the proceedings on stage with behind-the-hand asides. At one point, during an avalanche of cascading laughs, Santa Maria interrupted Miclean’s next line by saying, “Wait! Say that last line again. They were laughing.”
We’re still laughing.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum plays through February 14 in the Scherr Forum at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. For dates and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar.