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'Romans' tapped into stage silliness

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One of the greatest opening numbers in musical history is Comedy Tonight, for how it defines the style and sums up what is to follow in Stephen Sondheim's Roman farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Expectations for the Kiss the Giraffe revival that opened Wednesday night as part of SondheimFest were lifted by Chelsea Rankin's charming performance of the song that promises, "something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone -- a comedy tonight." The ambitious community troupe certainly fulfils that pledge but doesn't have the required resources to take on the enormous challenge of a full-blown Broadway musical.

It was hard to overlook the lack of triple threats, performers who could sing, dance and act. Production values were also in short supply -- there wasn't ever a door to slam, the main prop of a farce.

What was also clear to everyone in the audience was that the cast had heart and were game to be part of the master playwright festival no matter its disadvantages. Trying to pull off comedy on any night is challenging, especially when it's Benny Hill-style, but the 13 performers were able to tap into the ready supply of stage silliness.

Kami Desilets, directing a full-scale musical for the first time, plays around with gender in her casting, perhaps more out of necessity than choice. Her Pseudolus, traditionally but not exclusively male, is played by Rankin, the slave trying to gain his freedom by procuring a virgin courtesan for his master's son, Hero. The Proteans, usually men, are portrayed by three women who get to shine in a number of supporting roles.

Rankin possesses a lovely if under-powered voice and appealing stage presence, but misses some of the desperation to be free that motivates Pseudolus to set in motion all the evening's toga tomfoolery, mistaken identities and ribald humour.

Forum plays out on a street in ancient Rome where three houses, represented by simple painted flats, stand. In the middle is the home of the henpecked Senex, his shrewish wife Domina, their son Hero and slaves Pseudolus and Hysterium. Hero has spotted the love of his life, Philia, next door at a house of ill repute run by the gullible Lycus. On the other side is the home of the befuddled Erronius, who spends most of the 140-minute-long frolic doddering around the Forrest Nickerson Theatre looking for his stolen children.

What plays out is a bawdy blend of the 2,000-year-old comedies of Roman playwright Plautus, the father of farce, with the infectious energy of a vaudeville show written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, of M*A*S*H fame. Sondheim's score is melodic and his most accessible. The characters are mostly stereotypes that Sondheim often reinforces in song. In Lovely, the dumb blond Philia chirps, "I'm lovely, all I am is lovely, lovely is the only thing I can do."

Pseudolus's scheme to hook up Hero and Philia hits a snag when Lycus informs him that she has already been bought by the oafish soldier captain Miles Gloriosus, who plans to sail away with her. To keep that from happening, Pseudolus contrives a ruse that turns the stage into a second-act scramble with three blondes being pursued by everyone.

As the lusting Senex, John Bluethner stands out in the cast as the old pro, less mugging, more effective. He elevates every scene he is in. Shawn Kowalke's Miles Gloriosus is a narcissistic buffoon but fun to watch. Mallory Schellenberg makes the most of Philia's best number That'll Show Him, where the dimwit sings to Hero that she will be thinking of him when she is making out with Miles Gloriosus. Phil Corrin was appropriately manic as Hysterium, a performance that was strongly reminiscent of Lloyd, the long-suffering assistant to super-agent Ari Gold on HBO's Entourage.

Forum may not be for the farce-phobic but this Kiss the Giraffe production does keep its word to offer something for everyone.

Theatre Review

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Kiss the Giraffe Productions

To Sunday at Forrest Nickerson Theatre

Tickets: $15, $12 students/seniors

3 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2013 D3

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