Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
The ancient Roman scene on Hillbarn's stage is well set by Kua-Hao Lo's layout of a street with three large, brightly colored houses surrounded by hills of crowded neighborhoods, all done with a cartoon-like flair appropriate for the farce about to begin. (Foothill Music Theatre recently used this same set in a production, but Kau-Hao Lo has creatively added some important features to increase the bawdiness and humor.) Living in the center, balconied home is the patrician family of father Senex, mother Domina, and 20-year-old son Hero along with their slaves Hysterium and Pseudolus (the latter, our narrator and self-proclaimed star of the show). Their neighbors are a crooked, bearded old man, Erronius, who is setting out to find his now-adult children stolen away at birth by pirates, and a crafty businessman, Marcus Lycus, who runs a house full of foreign beauties serving up their bodies for men's pleasures. Young Hero catches the eye and the heart of one newly arrived courtesan (and still virgin), Philia, but soon discovers she has been sold for a small fortune to a renowned Roman officer of the warring legions, Miles Gloriosus. Pseudolus convinces his lust-filled master Hero that if he can attain Philia for him, Hero will award his shrewd slave his freedom. The crafty, often lying (but for good causes) Pseudolus sets on a quest that borrows the antics and the ploys of Harold Lloyd, Keystone Kops, and Abbott & Costello in order to arrive at the happy ending for all that is promised in the musical's opening lines. All of the cast members are wonderfully adorned in the whimsical, yet Romanesque costumes designed by Mae Matos.
Three actors have opened on Broadway in the role of Pseudolus, and all have won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical (Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Nathan Lane). If Hillbarn Theatre were magically lifted to the Great White Way, there is little doubt in my mind that Dan Demers could be the fourth. From the second he pops his little round head and body out of the curtain to welcome us, to the moment he ensures everything has ended in bliss for all, this Pseudolus never ceases to twist, twitch, and tumble; to smirk, squeeze, and stumble; and to flinch, flip, and fumble from one end of the stage to the other. His face contorts into hundreds of incredible masks. The crazy ideas and lies he uses to manipulate everyone around him for the good of all (especially himself) can almost be seen popping from his always-ticking mind. Our Pseudolus is a naughty, lovable, calculating clown whose energy is contagious and who keeps the audience locked in raucous attention the entire show.
Luckily for us, Dan Demers (who also serves as co-director with Jim Ambler) is not the only zany star on this stage. Coming very close and sometimes even one-upping him is Raymond Mendonca as Hysterium. He too knows how to transform into countless, comedic crooks of countenance. Along with Mr. Demers, he also brings a strong, clear singing voice to balance his hilarious antics, as is demonstrated in his frenetic "I'm Calm" or in the surprisingly touching reprise of "Lovely" that he duets with Pseudolus. But his stop-the-show moment occurs when, dressed in Roman drag as the young, supposed dead Philia, he cannot keep his prone, "deceased" body from rhythmically moving as he listens to the songs being sung at his/her funeral.
Another particularly stellar performance comes from David Blackburn in his gender-bending portrayal of young Hero. With shrieks that span several octaves, a Roman skirt that he cannot help but raise to show off his cute undies, arms that flay flamboyantly, and legs that like to rise to Rockette heights, we are kept wondering up until the end if he will really elope with the Goldilocks-curled, gorgeous Philia (played delightfully by Ali Marie Gangi) or with one of the hunky Roman soldiers passing by in the Forum. In each of three duets with Pseudolus ("Free"), Philia ("Lovely"), and his father Senex (the hunched-back, hen-pecked, and hungry-for-sex Russell Ward in "Impossible"), he more than stars in his half of the performance, bringing a fun and fresh voice as well as rib-tickling shenanigans.
And if it is possible to have yet one more reason to stop the show in admiration and awe, Tracy Chiappone provides it in her buxomed, take-no-prisoners portrayal of the domineering Domina, wife of Senex and mother of Hero. When she belts "That Dirty Old Man" as she hunts for her philandering husband, all of us men in the theatre want to hide behind our seats in case she mistakes one of us for him.
Many others in this fine cast bring nuance, enthusiasm, and frivolity to their roles. Russ Bohard is the brothel owner Lycus who somehow mixes appropriately sleaze, greed, and shyness into a likeable and loyal friend and neighbor of the Roman hood. While not on the stage that much, the child-hunting Erronius (Ron Lopez) knows how to milk the audience for his share of laughs. And as the three Proteans who change in seconds from slaves to soldiers to eunuchs and more, Noah Boder, Brad Satterwhite, and Jon Schneider clearly are having as much fun in their roles as we are in watching them.
For all its many merits, the Hillbarn production does have a couple of misses. Notably is the miscasting of the Roman legion captain Miles Gloriosus who arrives to claim his contracted Philia. Unfortunately, Gary Guirbino continually has trouble delivering lines that can be totally understood and in singing the key finale of act one ("Bring Me My Bride") and the climax of act two ("Funeral Sequence") convincingly. Also strange for a production that is overall hyped on steroids, act one really slows down in pace to the point that energy is zapped by the end from the audience and cast alike. Finally, for the second time in as many months, I attended a musical where recorded music is used as the score. To me, this is almost inexcusable, especially during the Overture when we must listen to what we could hear on our CDs at home. Give me one piano before you give me a recording that at times comes with its scratches and at other times, is clearly "Memorex" and not live.
But even with those reservations, I heartily recommend venturing amongst the inland waters of Foster City to Hillbarn Theatre where ancient Rome rises in a full, bawdy farce and where a Pseudolus, a Hysterium, and a Hero like none seen on local stages in a long time are joined by many other hard-working, rollicking cast members to produce "Comedy tonight!"
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues at Hillbarn Theatre (1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City) through September 20, 2015. For performance or ticket information, call 650-349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.