Sometimes, the opening number is enough to assure an audience that all will be well for the rest of the show.
That was the case with “Comedy Tonight,” the classic opening stage-setter for the marvelously entertaining “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” on the Spokane Civic Theatre’s Main Stage.
From that jaunty number I learned:
•That director Diana Trotter perfectly understood the show’s slapstick-pratfall spirit.
•That Jerry Sciarrio, as the sly slave Pseudolus, would be an excellent chaperone through this crazy Roman world.
•That the supporting cast would be unafraid to toss in all manner of comedy shtick, ranging from Plautus to vaudeville to “Laugh-In.”
•And that the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim would be well-served by Trotter and music director Scott Miller.
This is far from a given, because the last two times I’ve seen “Forum,” “Comedy Tonight” was an uninspired, low-energy letdown.
Not here. Sciarrio swaggers proudly across the stage – not easy in a hot-pink tunic – and channels the stage presence and comic spirit of Zero Mostel, who originated the role. Just when you think he’s milked every nuance out of this great Sondheim number, Trotter brings in the entire cast of zany characters to do a stagewide, high-kicking chorus routine.
I dare you to see this show and not end up singing “Comedy Tonight” to yourself for at least the next 48 hours.
And it just gets better from there. This 1962 Broadway hit has just about everything a person could ask for in a comedy: bawdy puns, witty lyrics, clever slaves, pompous masters, slapstick chases, old guys dressed up like pretty women and a complete refusal to take anything seriously.
Trotter did exactly the right thing: She decided to have maximum fun. This is most evident in her use of the three Proteans, who show up in multiple roles – soldiers, eunuchs, citizens. Every time they come on, they are channeling some classic shtick – I detected everything from Groucho Marx to Stan Laurel – and the audience roared. It helps that she cast three talented young actors, Shawna Nordman, David McCarthy and Todd Kehne, in those roles.
Trotter also did a great job of casting the rest of the show. Gary Pierce is the very embodiment of Hysterium, the obsequious and highly nervous foil to Sciarrio’s Pseudolus. He flaps his arms, he screams, he roars – he makes Jerry Lewis seem demure.
Robert Wamsley is priceless as the rich master, a smugly smiling wall of purple toga. Lauralynn (Lulu) Stafford is his equal as Domina, the battle-axe wife.
Virtually everyone else in the supporting cast contributes laughs, ranging from the va-va-voom courtesan Gymnasia (Jess Liles) to the daft old man Erronius (George Morrison), who is fated to trot endlessly around Rome, showing up only occasionally to proclaim, “Second time around!”
David Baker’s pastel-colored Roman cartoon of a set was so impressive, it got its own round of applause when it was unveiled. The action takes place in three villas on three levels. The rich toga-and-tunic costumes, by Jan Wanless and Susan Berger, managed to have their own distinct comic personalities.
Best of all are the musical numbers, especially the priceless “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” in which four Roman males sing a bawdy ode to the advantages of having a “serving girl, a working girl” around the house.
As the lyrics to “Comedy Tonight” say: “Morals tomorrow, comedy tonight.”
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