By Perry Tannenbaum
Although our host Pseudolus seems to be weighing two common alternatives, comedy and tragedy, before opting for the jocular vein, Stephen Sondheim hardly ever pursued either option again after 1962, when he scored his first hit as a composer-lyricist with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum. Amazing when you consider that Sondheim had already put his hand into a wildly successful tragedy, West Side Story, as a lyricist.
So it goes without saying that Sondheim doesn't look at ticket sales or incoming royalty checks when he decides on new projects. Local theater companies take a different view, which is why Charlotte's prime purveyors of musical comedy, CPCC and Theatre Charlotte, have both presented A Funny Thing on multiple occasions during the Loaf Era. Now it's Theatre Charlotte's turn, just four years after CP's most recent revival.
While they haven't declared "Comedy Tonight!" at the Queens Road barn since 2002, it wasn't supposed to be that way. But then the rights for the originally scheduled Fiddler on the Roof were inexplicably withdrawn, just days before auditions. So it was time to bring the ancient script (after all, the Burt Shrevelove-Larry Gelbart book is based on a 2,200-year-old Roman comedy by Plautus) out of mothballs one more time.
The show doesn't look rushed at all. In fact, Chris Timmons' charming and colorful Smurf Village concept may be the best we've had here, though there will always be a special place in my heart for the outrageously kitschy Bob Croghan design for the CP version of 1988 — with lame lawn ornaments and lush Astroturf. Colors absolutely pop on many of Jamey Varnadore's mischievously wrongheaded costumes, festooned with incongruous Greek motifs.
Keeping with the spirit of the really old jokes we're about to ingest, director Vito Abate calls for an old-timey vaudeville ambiance, keeping the scarlet curtains drawn before the slave Pseudolus first greets us and not axing either the overture or the entr'acte. We don't have footlights, but lighting designer Trista Bremer gets the picture. It's a picture that needs to wear well when you don't deeply cut into the sprawling script and score, which clocked in at a shade over 131 minutes plus intermission on opening night. Caught offstride by the last-minute change in programming, Theatre Charlotte's talent pool has very capably filled the casting slots. None of the frontliners would make my first team among all the Forums I've reviewed in Charlotte, but they're all solid and eager. So if you're new to this Roman musical comedy, you won't be disappointed.
Energy is what staves off the doldrums. It's the best quality of this ensemble, and it begins at the top with Robbie Jaeger as Pseudolus. He's not the most wheedling or wily of slaves, but Jaeger moves gracefully, he dances confidently with a kinky trio of shape-shifting Proteans, and his unmiked voice rocks the house. He's slick with the shtick that Abate gives him, comfortable addressing the house, and the best we've had in 10 years.
Pseudolus dwells in the house of the seriously henpecked Senex, but it's Senex's son Hero who is the slave's special charge — and his ticket to freedom. For lo, Hero has spied the lovely Philia next door and fallen in love. If Pseudolus can somehow contrive to make Philia his, Hero will make him a free man. But aside from the approval of Senex and his termagant wife Domina, there are numerous obstacles in the path of true love:
a) The house next door, where Philia lives, is a brothel.
b) Hero has never met Philia.
c) Philia has already been sold by her whoremaster, Lycus, to Miles Gloriosus.
d) Gloriosus is a military titan, not to be crossed or trifled with.
If all these difficulties weren't enough, Senex returns from out-of-town while Pseudolus is in the middle of his masterplot, and he's smitten by Philia as the suspicious Domina follows in his wake. Philia is yet another headache, a straight-arrow virgin who has been trained not to run away from the men who own her, and — due to some vague religious scruple — unwilling to drink the Juliet potion that would enable Pseudolus to dupe Gloriosus into believing that his mail order bride had died of the plague. To the rescue comes headservant Hysterium, and when that doesn't pan out, Hero's other next-door neighbor Erronius, a doddering oldster who has returned from searching the world for his missing children, abducted by pirates.
Out of nowhere, the ultra-nervous Hysterium nearly steals this show with his broad low-comedy antics, and Stuart Spencer is a worthy successor to Corey Mitchell at the barn, quivering in his cravenness for his "I'm Calm" showpiece and stupendously ugly when called upon to don drag. More daring are the casting choices Abate has made for Hero and Philia, John Pope and Kelly Kapur, both high-schoolers. Pope is adorably gawky but not at all uncomely while Kapur strains only slightly to reach the full air-headedness of Philia — and the high notes in the "Lovely" duet.
Ted Delorme captures the merry lechery of Senex perfectly, nicely matched with Betsey Dalzell, a formidably repellent Domina in her Theatre Charlotte debut. Winston Sims dons a curiously Arabian costume to preside over his harem of harlots as Lycus, capping off the lewd quartet who give us the never-ending "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid." Aided by some tasty direction from Abate, not to mention some nifty reactions from Jaeger, Bobby Faucette brings fresh life to the ages-old Erronius shtick. And you'll need to see the preternaturally steely get-up that Christian Muller wears as Miles Gloriosus — I only wish his singing voice had been miked to match the unique power of his stage presence.
Lisa Blanton deliciously choreographs the procession of pulchritudinous harlots who populate the House of Lycus, and once we escape the limpid overtures, music director John Smith fronts a five-piece combo that nearly matches the zest and energy of the madcap actors. All in all, I can affirm that a funny thing is happening at Theatre Charlotte — over and over again.