Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, April 2007
You would never, ever know that this production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was a last-minute effort, but it was. When problems arose with the rights to Chicago, which was supposed to close Cohoes’ 2006-2007 season, ...Forum was hastily announced, cast, and rehearsed. In the true spirit of “the show must go on” C-R Productions’ Artistic Director Jim Charles is playing the lead role of Pseudolus, the rotund Roman slave who will do ANYTHING to earn his freedom. Other Cohoes regulars such as director Tralen Doler, co-musical directors Michael McAssey and Adams Jones, and many of the performers are also involved – how many of them were slated for “Chicago” anyway is a moot point – everyone has come together not just to ensure that season ticket holders got the April-May show they paid for, but that the production shines as brightly as any project polished over many months of planning.
I suspect Charles has played Pseudolus before once or twice, because he seems very, very comfortable in the large clown shoes previously filled by stars of the magnitude of Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Nathan Lane, and Whoopi Goldberg. His Pseudolus is wildly over-the-top, broad and bawdy, and in fine voice. Charles seems to be having so much fun that it would be impossible for everyone else in the theatre not to join him in the hilarity.
I have seen and reviewed two previous productions of ...Forum over my decade of as a theatre critic, and I have to say that Pseudolus sits best in the hands of an actor who is a known entity to the audience. Charles is a prominent figure in his home town of Cohoes and, along with partner Tony Rivera, has placed a very personal stamp on the productions at the Cohoes Music. It is usually Charles or Rivera (which ever one isn’t on stage that night!) in the box office, giving the curtain speech, and supervising the drawing of the 50-50 raffle winner after intermission. Because Pseudolus frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience like an old friend, it helps if he or she is one! Charles is supported by an able cast of loonies. Paul Kelly’s Hysterium starts out a little too calmly but finishes up his drag turn in the second act with a bang. Al Pagano and Dave Adamick look like they’re having a ball as Senex, the hen-pecked middle-aged husband who looks to get lucky with what he takes to be the new maid, and Marcus Lycus, professional purveyor of female pulchritude. And Michael Hayes just plain made me laugh as Erronius. It takes a talented actor to get a hand just for walking across the stage.
Jeannie Shubitz is a delightfully ditzy Philia. Frankly, too often this role is cast with a young woman who is merely pretty, not one who can act. It was a treat to see a performer of Shubitz’ caliber tackle the role and make it crackle with wit and irony. Similarly her real-life significant other, Jason Fleck, brings more than mere muscle to the role of pompous gladiator Miles Gloriosus.
With the little she gets to do as Domina (doesn’t that character sometimes have a song in Act I as well as Act II?) Cathy Newman does nicely. As her love-lorn son Hero Casey Gensler was easily the weakest link in the cast, displaying a flaccid lack of energy compared to the whirlwind of activity which engulfs him.
Doler has created marvelous spotlight bits for the three young actors appearing as the Proteans – Augie Abatacola, Anthony Ong, and Alex Turpin – in the elaborately staged opening number Comedy Tonight. They tumble and sing and dance and prance about so nimbly in the first fifteen minutes of the show that you watch for their every subsequent appearance with eager anticipation.
Another long stretch of Act I involves Marcus Lycus parading his “wares” before Pseudolus and Hero (the plot of this show is way too wonderfully, farcically complicated to warrant any serious attempt at a blow-by-blow description), and what wares they are! The young ladies playing the courtesans are by turns silly, sexy, and scary! Regina Gatta bounces blithely about as Panacea, her ample bosom swathed in cascades of purple grapes. Kao Kitano is a tiny tigress as Vibrata. Nicole Brammer and Courtney Romano intertwine sinuously as the Geminae Twins. Jennifer Stone reveals a startling degree of flexibility as Tintinabula. And Jennifer Davis can only be described as monumental in her thigh-high, sky-high black patent leather hooker boots and towering wig. Coupled with her own long lean physique she is an Amazonian dominatrix of terrifying proportions. No wonder Pseudolus takes a special shine to her!
All of this lascivious silliness is aided and abetted by Pamela Keenan’s saucy and colorful costumes and Aaron Wilson’s crazily cock-eyed set. Doler’s direction and choreography is top-notch – he and his cast don’t let an opportunity for a rude joke pass them by – crotches are grabbed, boobs bounce, size matters, and if Pseudolus can end up in a compromising position of any kind with anyone of any gender, he will!
I was struck at this viewing by what an odd conglomeration of theatrical styles “…Forum” represents. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim – a 1962 solo effort in between his many years of writing lyrics only for shows such as West Side Story and Gypsy and his own break-out hit with Company in 1970 – while the book by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove is a good old-fashioned slapstick farce which finds its roots in vaudeville. That it all fits together and works is very odd indeed. Just one of those inexplicable miracles of the theatre.
Unless you are very, very prudish in your theatrical tastes, ...Forum is a can’t miss comedy for a fun night on the town.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through May 13 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. Performances Friday & Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007