IF YOU GO
What: Musical about a crafty slave who schemes to get the girl for his master and freedom for himself
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2 and 9.
Where: G&L Theatre on the campus of Community School of Naples, 13275 Livingston Road, Naples
Information: 888-966-3352 or theatrezone-florida.com
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
Folks, trust me on this one. Don't miss "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at TheatreZone.
TheatreZone has tossed up some dreadful air balls over the years ("High Spirits," "Man of La Mancha"). "Forum" is not one of them. "Forum" is one of the best local musicals in the past 18 months. Get tickets. Now.
So many things go right in this show. For once, all (well, most) of Mark Danni's pieces fell together perfectly. Stephen Sondheim's peppy, upbeat music and lyrics can survive any pounding. The clever, uproarious book from Bart Shevelove and Larry Gelbart piles farcical situation on top of silliness on top of sheer lunacy as wily slave Pseudolus seeks a courtesan for his master in order to win freedom for himself. Courtesans in outrageous, barely there costumes. Squawking eunuchs. Young lovers. Potions. Divas. Soldiers. Just a magnificent show.
Danni, in one of his best-ever strokes of stunt casting ex-TV or Broadway stars, convinced "Laverne & Shirley"'s 'Big Ragu,' Eddie Mekka, to play the crafty slave Pseudolus. All too often, the ploy feels designed to sell tickets rather than on the actor's best fit for the show. Fear not - Mekka delights from the first moment he steps on stage with a huge grin.
Any performance of "Forum" must be built on a strong Pseudolus; Mekka doesn't just carry this show - he propels it forward as if powered by a jet engine shooting flames of merriment into the audience. Gifted at physical comedy, he dances, twirls and leaps about the stage. He mugs - shamelessly - through scenes with young Hero and the courtesans and begs for his life in front of towering Miles Gloriosus. "The Big Ragu" is great, big fun - especially when he's scheming.
Community School senior Noah Samotin elevates the role of Hero with a gift for comedy and a wonderful voice. Productions sometimes cast the Hero role as a male bimbo, a Ken doll; Samotin finds both the silliness of young love and the goofiness of being part of the madcap plots. The young man holds his own against Mekka; their shared comic duet "Free" soars with fun. Watch Samotin throughout the night for wide-eyed expressions and a cute chemistry with on-stage lover, courtesan Phillia (Brigid Kegel). Kegel delights as a comely, air-headed love object, but her nails-on-a-chalkboard singing voice made me wince.
Intentional or not, the entire House of Marcus Lycus carries a heavy drag queen vibe - from Lycus himself on down. Over the top, yes, but it left the folks in front of me in stitches. Bruce Rebold (Lycus) creates a fabulously funny seller of the flesh, in ruby red pants, heavy makeup, blue eye shadow, exaggerated brows and what might have been lipstick. Courtesans resemble rough-and-tumble drag queens with magnificent headpieces (and little else). Look for Dawn Lebrecht Fornara's ferocious, feral S&M mistress Gymnasia, towering on heels, with a foot of wig and cracking a whip.
Susan Haldeman makes a bid to steal the second act as an operatic Domina. Her "Dirty Old Man" delights. Proteans Anthony Nuccio and Adriel Munoz tumble and stumble through the night on a tide of mischief and silly faces. Watch for their surprise cameo as siblings in one of the most unexpected places! Michael Lundy pouts and whines as worrywart slave Hysterium.
Danni allows the show's sillier scenes to shine through. "Everybody Ought to Have A Maid" sees Senex, Hero, Hysterium and Marcus Lycus in a rousing kick line. "Free" allows Mekka to demonstrate his physical comedy skills. The courtesan dances in "The House of Marcus Lycus" disappoint; only Karen Konken's athletic Tintinabula really wows.
The show retains one major problem - its costumes. Credited to longtime TheatreZone costumer Kathleen Kolacz, the work - even considering the group's shoestring budget - is simply unacceptable, especially for a professional company. While the clothes reflect the production's bright, poppy vibe (characters wear colorful striped underclothes), woeful fabric choices and questionable construction techniques leave much to be desired.
Take, for instance, a simple toga for Samotin's Hero. It looks like pillowcase with holes cut for the head and arms and cheap gold braid hot-glued on. Slave tunics look like someone raided the sad remnant bin at a fabric outlet, stapled two bolts of fabric together and snatched any old scrap off the floor to use for a belt. There's a vision here - it was just not executed.
Flimsy soldier gambesons look like day-after Halloween costumes scraped off the floor after an all-night "Spartacus" rave. The single most puzzling choice? Colorful leggings that go only to the knee - only to be replaced by what is either shorts or chopped-off woolen underwear. Did the seamstress think the audience wouldn't notice? Yet, Haldeman's pink gown, obviously from the same hand, manages to look elegant, as does the hilariously overripe Lycus outfit and the soft, flowing, virginal gown for Kegel's Phillia.
Savor Sondheim's bouncy music and gloriously goofy lyrics. Charles Fornara squeezes a seven-piece band behind the facade of "a street in Rome;" they sound amazing. If your foot doesn't start tapping, check your pulse. Chris Rich's set abandons columns and marble for vivid primary colors; these amp up the cartoonish vibe and "fun factory" atmosphere. The seductive House of Lycus gets gauzy gold curtains and a cutesy slogan above the door; I would have gone with "Tryus & Lycus." Phillip Watson bathes the stage in light, creating a sun-kissed street.
Ignore the costumes (if you can). "Forum" entertains on a magnificent, jolly scale. Screaming slaves, squealing courtesans, Pseudolus plotting, lovers leering, soldiers stumbling and marvelous music combine for a night of brilliant fun. Remember, "it's tragedy tomorrow, comedy TONIGHT!"
Full Disclosure: TheatreZone founder and artistic director Mark Danni writes a monthly column about theater, titled "Floodlights," for the Naples Journal. My direct supervisor, Penny Fisher, manages production of the Naples Journal.
"Everybody ought to have a maid." Email me, email@example.com. Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.