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by Anthony Chase
Plays are opening in fast succession as we approach next week’s Curtain Up! Celebration, the official start of the Buffalo theater season, on September 29.
A FUNNY THING
HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM
Two musicals that have already opened demonstrate that companies are not shying away from challenging material. While the Irish Classical Theatre Company opened a first-rate production of the serious but uplifting musical, A Man of No Importance, last week. This week, the Kavinoky Theatre weighs in with the lightweight but demanding Sondheim musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a classic farce set in classical antiquity. An early 1960s musical with early 1960s sensibilities, the show was a delicate brew, even for its original audiences, which didn’t know how to respond until the tone-setting opening number, “Comedy Tonight,” was famously added shortly before the Broadway opening.
The Playboy-era plot is simple and silly: Pseudolus, a slave, will do anything to win his freedom. He sees his opportunity when the master and mistress of the house go away for the weekend, leaving him in charge of their adolescent son, who will do anything for the love of a girl he has seen in the adjacent house…a brothel. Absurd ribaldry and sexist high jinks ensue.
Buffalo does not afford the luxury of out-of-town tryouts and six weeks of previews, so to say that the Kavinoky production will grow into itself with playing is not to slam it. Director Paul Todaro with choreographer Michelle Gigante has staged a production in which, on the opening night, nary a spontaneous moment occurred—not even at the hands of the famously funny Norm Sham who stars as Pseudolus. But a delightful structure is in place, and the production, handsomely designed by David King is endowed with a lavish abundance of comic and musical talent. It’s like a bottle of champagne just waiting to be uncorked, and with this show now in the hands of the performers, it is sure to loosen up, liven up and bloom into the achingly funny diversion it yearns to be.
At the opening, Sham gave a reserved but most agreeable performance, hitting his comic marks perfectly and negotiating the chaotic plot of the Burt Shevelove-Larry Gelbart script with great clarity and precision.
Watching Tom Loughlin as Senex, the long-suffering husband of a shrewish wife and the father of the aforementioned sexually adolescent boy, is like watching Fred Flintstone in a musical. He is delightfully out of place hoofing and singing with abandon as the lusty old goat struggles to sow what may be his very last oat.
Sheila McCarthy, long regarded to be both Buffalo’s best musical theater soprano and one of our best clowns too, nails Domina, the shrew, perfectly. Louis Colaiacovo is wonderful as Hysterium, the hysterical other slave. Joseph Demerly is charming and most engaging as their son, Hero. Rosie Mattia sings beautifully as Philia, the resident virgin at the whorehouse next door.
Tim Newell, a master of snide comedy, easily steals his every scene with a truly brilliant performance as Marcus Lycus, a seller of courtesans.
I was very impressed, as well, by the powerful performance by Jeffrey Coyle as Miles Gloriosus, the arrogant Roman general. His singing and comic abandon are equally impressive.
Jim Mohr is very good as the befuddled old man who holds the key to the plot’s improbable resolution. Robert J. Cooke, Marc Sacco and Joseph Wiens give athletic and perfectly ridiculous (in a nice way) performances as the ever eager Proteans. A bevy of girls give a memorable impression as a bevy of diverse courtesans.
With musical direction by Fran Landis, lighting by Brian Cavanagh, sound by Tom Makar and costumes by Jen S. Gurney, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is great fun.
SISTERS OF SWING:
THE ANDREWS SISTER MUSICAL
Less ambitious but brimming over with charm is the MusicalFare production of Sister of Swing: The Andrews Sister Musical. The two musicals described above aside, we are in an era when we are inundated with musical revues of various degrees of vapidity. This show, on the other hand, gives us something extra, a retrospective of great tunes from the most successful sister group in history, coupled with a narrative about the tumultuous relationships among them.
With three of Buffalo’s most popular musical stars taking on the roles—Kathy Weese as Patty, Kelly Meg Brennan as Maxine and Debbie Pappas as LaVerne—we see how the harmony that united the sisters was undermined by the qualities that divided them. This is not an impersonation show, and while the three never precisely approximate the Andrews Sisters sound, they do sing gloriously. From the Andrews Sisters to the Lennon Sisters to the Moylan Sisters, those perfectly matched vocals are possible only through genetics. Bette Midler accomplished her hit cover of the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” by pre-recording her own backup. What Weese, Brennan and Pappas bring to the show is an abundance of personality.
Pappas most closely approximates the Andrews Sisters we remember. Brennan gives a strong sense of comedy and a gorgeous classically trained voice. Weese gives us the irrepressible and downright infantile Patty Andrews personality, most vividly depicted in a moment when we find her in the backyard of Doris Day’s house, swinging a baseball bat and braying abuse while searching for her philandering husband.
The show is a musical treat and tells a fascinating story. Those who remember the 1940s will be especially captivated by the “where were you when?” parallels, and the Andrews Sisters take us to important historical moments like the bombing of Pearl Harbor and VJ Day.
Todd Benzin adds immeasurably to the evening by playing everybody except the Andrews Sisters, including a couple of daft drag moments. The show is a treat.
The Alleyway Theatre is celebrating the 90th birthday of celebrated critic-translator-playwright Eric Bentley with a production of Unholy Trinity, a selection of his songs and sketches, first compiled and arranged by the late Maxim Mazumdar for the Alleyway a generation ago. Alleyway has given the material a first-rate outing with an esteemed cast headed by the legendary Saul Elkin, a former colleague of Bentley’s in UB’s theater department, as Galileo. Drew Kahn makes an unlikely singing and dancing appearance as an unlikely Oscar Wilde. Chris J. Handley steps in as Jesus. While only Handley really qualifies as a song and dance man, all three acquit themselves compellingly in an engaging evening of thought provoking material. The excerpts, pulled from Eric Bentley’s The Recantation of Galileo Galilei, Lord Alfred’s Lover and From the Memoirs of Pontius Pilate, explore the desires and compromises that plague the lives of the thoughtful. It is an intelligent and engaging evening, performed with great charm by a spirited cast under the direction of Neal Radice, with musical direction by Monica Stankewicz, sets and lighting by Radice and costumes by Joyce Stilson.
One momentous event that came and went in grand style without waiting for Curtain Up! was the one-night-only performance of The Disputation, starring Theodore Bikel at the the Canisius College Montante Cultural Center. Intended by event sponsors Joan and Peter Andrews as an opportunity for Buffalo to see a great actor in a vehicle that would promote interfaith interaction, its timing, in the midst of the tumult surrounding Pope Benedict XVI’s recent comments about the Prophet Mohammed and the Muslim faith, could not have been more uncanny. In The Disputation, it is 1263 and Pope Urban IV is impatient with King James I of Barcelona for his liberality toward the Jews, and his disregard for his marriage vows. James is pressured into arranging a “disputation” or debate between a prominent rabbi and a converted Jew on whether or not the messiah has come, and whether or not said messiah is divine. The hope is that once the Christians have won the debate, Jews will convert to Christianity en masse. Using actual accounts of this encounter, the play examines the nature of faith, the limitations of religious fundamentalism and the ability of friendship to bridge differences. With Theodore Bikel’s remarkable performance in the central role, an evening that might have had all the excitement of a Sunday morning catechism class became a crackling and energetic series of barbed exchanges as the stakes for the rabbi, the Dominicans and the king himself go higher and higher. In addition to Bikel, who was perfection in the role, a complex amalgam of dignity, wily intellect and compassion, David Lamb lent a compelling humanity to King James. A mixed audience of Catholics and Jews responded to the piece, in which the rabbi clearly wins on points, but is nearly made the loser by brute force, with riveted concentration and exited the theater energized by what they had seen.
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