KPBS AIRDATE: August 17, 1994
Something familiar. Something peculiar. The first two words of the first song of one of the wackiest musical comedies ever written. It’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and its current production sports plenty both familiar and peculiar.
Familiar? It’s at Starlight Musical Theatre, for which we were all singing ‘Taps’ not six weeks ago. But the cycle has not been broken, and Starlight has managed to cobble together three cooperative ventures to inaugurate its 49th consecutive year. A million dollar debt brought the theater to its knees, but like the mythological Phoenix, it seems to be rising again.
“One of the peculiar aspects of this “Funny Thing” is its collaboration with San Diego City College, who mounted most of this production last spring. So that offered a speedy production, and the slimmest, trimmest, dancingest, most adorable courtesans. Some of the other casting may be a bit peculiar, but overall, the show is, indeed, a funny thing.
What wasn’t so funny was seeing some scant 400 patrons in a theater space that seats 4000. So, if you’re looking for a laugh, and less of a parking problem than Starlight usually offers — though not, alas, fewer planes — you’d better head over to the bowl in Balboa Park.
Especially if you like your comedy on the low-side. This show puts borscht-belt, slapstick, vaudeville, banana-peel humor on the body, and ever-so-clever Stephen Sondheim lyrics in the mouth. Inspired by the farcical plays of Plautus, who lived in the second century B.C., these sight-gags still stand up. Director Mark Stevens has pulled out all the stops and staged it for all the shtick in the world. Mostly, that works, particularly as bolstered by the choreography of Xavier Velasco. You won’t want to miss those courtesans; the twins are en pointe, for God’s sake. That’s gotta be a first for this show. But at its center is the quick-footed, quick-thinking, usually rotund, cavorting slave Pseudolus, originally played by Zero Mostel, both on Broadway in ’62 and in the 1966 movie. He manages to make matches, say sooths, create pseudo-deaths and disguises, trick, connive, cajole and caper all to win his freedom. Without a side-splitting centerpiece, the play, however humorous, can lie there like a lox.
Fortunately, Tim Irving is pretty funny, and the night I saw him, he showed an incredible ability to ad-lib, which repeatedly proved to be the hilarious highlight of the show. Acknowledging mike problems, he prays to the gods of sound, and, at the moment of his imminent death, he says, “I go to another plane,” just as a jet shrieks by overhead. “I’ve been waiting 20 years to do that joke,” quipped Irving, “Or at least since we opened on Thursday. The angels must be with me.” Then added, “No, they’re on strike.”
And on and on and on. Librettists Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart would’ve been pleased with Irving’s off-the-cuff additions. Okay, so he played Phil Silvers a lot of the time (and even looks like him). Okay, so he took the biggest double takes the world has ever seen. All right, he doesn’t sing that well. But his comic timing is great, even if his miking is variable. And he does a damn good Hitchcock, Skelton, Jolson, Gleason, and Channing. You get the picture. There are only 18 people onstage, but there might as well be a thousand.
Irving has very good support from Jim Bachelor as the sleazy courtesan-dealer, Ruff Yaeger as the pompous captain, Jack Tygett as the doddering Erronius, and Andy Collins as the aptly named Hysterium. Starlight’s own Don Ward gets to dance again, though he could be a lot more lecherous, and his wife Domina, Elizabeth Kolman, could be a lot more shrewish. Jon Stewart is an affable young Hero, and his beloved, played by Christine Phelps, has a marvelous voice, though she could be costumed a lot more flatteringly.
The sets, on loan from the San Bernardino Civic Opera, look fine, and the music in the pit is quite serviceable. Starlight deserves to have its golden anniversary next year. The company is doing everything it can to stay alive and afloat, launching three shows on a shoestring. But I’ve seen productions of theirs at three times the cost that weren’t half as much fun.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.