A Wrong Turn on the Way to the Forum?

Comedy isn’t easy. And making it look easy takes of great deal of careful preparation. It is, as they say, all in the timing.

Mounting a full-scale musical is a daunting task for any theater and the enormous cost for performance rights and music royalties this type of show demands can hamper a community theater’s ability to do all they envision. Even so, the biggest challenge Riverfront’s current run of “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” may have faced is time itself. Coordinating a large cast (19) as well as the various technical elements that make a show shine, takes a lot of time and hands. But, let’s take a look first at what does shine.

At the center of this farce is the scheming slave Pseudolus, whipping the plot through its paces and driving the madness forward. Played by Jorin Antero-Towle in his Riverfront debut, his task is Herculean. Pseudolus must act as narrator and facilitator of the story, as well as conman and matchmaker, while infecting those around him with calculated hysteria. He sings well, on key and on time and zips deftly through his lines with the energy of a house full of courtesans. Oddly, at one point, Jorin comes out in tap shoes, but barely uses them.

Jon Narducci, during rehearsals for "Forum"

The music is handled perfectly by pianist Jon Narducci. He is a pro and keeps the show lively and moving along. And it’s always great to have live music onstage for a musical. He sits within the set, in Roman costume, with a clear view of the actors so no one misses a beat. Yet in their second week of performance, some of the singers still seem a bit timid (smile, girls!) and others wander off key. The best number is definitely “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” handled deftly by the four leading men: Jim Littier, Jorin Antero-Towle, Colin Peacock, and Ian Dalziel. Littier (Senex) has a good musical theater background and carries his part with ease and a strong voice.

A Roman soldier, during rehearsals

Costumer Evie Bishop does a colorful riff off of your basic toga, making the cast look bright and showy. She also toughens up those Roman soldiers with great detailing in armor and leather.

Now, there are too many characters to mention here, but I will say that small roles, even non-speaking roles, are nevertheless important. Small parts support larger ones and are written in for good reason. One wishes that more attention could have been spared for these potential character jewels because the Courtesans (ladies-for-hire) and the Proteans (who play citizens, soldiers, and slaves), look aimless, under-directed and lost. Both groups tended to drop out of character as soon as focus was off them.

The setting of course is ancient Rome. Whatever that conjures up in your mind, I’d guess it’s not the grey box-like structures that seem lifted from a suburb of Glasgow. The cramped set is supposed to represent a Mediterranean street and the houses of Lycus, Senex, and Erronius, but the dreary mottled grey walls gave the play a strangely somber tone. Perhaps a quick googling for ‘Roman architecture’ could have provided some design ideas.

I noted there are no light cues in this production and that baffled me at first. After all, lighting is what makes theater theatrical and is so important in delineating mood and action. I also saw that the blocking, or the movement of actors, was very basic, consisting mostly of people in straight lines, facing front. But a look at the program yields up a clue to this lack of detail. Hard working Joe Cullis, who originally brought Forum to Riverfront, is listed as not only Technical Director, but Set Design, Lighting, and Sound. I know Joe and I know he did even more than what the program gives him credit for. I think that maybe he wore a few too many hats, even for his experienced and able hands. My point is, I think the show would have benefitted greatly by having a dedicated choreographer and lighting designer and taken some of the pressure off the directors. Doing a musical comedy is a huge juggling act. But as always, the show must, and did go on, is very lively and everyone appears to be having fun. “Forum” continues to play weekends through June 18.

The overall success of the original 1962 “Forum,” aside from Sondheim’s great tunes, was due to its style of comedy. This was the heyday, the early ’60s, of the Borscht Belt comedians, the comics who worked the resorts in the Catskills in upstate New York. Guys like Shecky Greene, Jack E. Leonard, Sid Caesar, and Phil Silvers. That’s the comedy of Forum — Jewish standup in togas. That’s funny. Wise-cracking Jewish comedians as Romans? Say no more. It’s that essence that I would have liked to see more of from Riverfront’s production– that vaudevillian flavor, the yiddishness, the scheming, self-deprecating American-Jewish humor at the core of the show. The show’s title is literally the set-up for a joke and the entire play is its punchline. Bada-boom, bada-bing. Perhaps with a little more time they can explore that essence. And a good joke, as any of those old timers will tell you, is all … in … the … timing. (Rimshot!)

What: Riverfront Playhouse’s “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum”
When: Friday through Sunday (June 9-12) and June 16-18. Showtimes:
Thursday – Saturday: 7:30 p.m. (doors open 6:45 p.m.)
Sunday matinees: 2 p.m. (doors open 1:15 p.m.)
Where: 1620 East Cypress Ave, Redding, CA 96002
Cost: Opening/Closing Night: $27
Regular Evenings: $22
Matinees: $20

Tickets available at the door or in advance at:
Collectibles, Etc. (formerly Graphic Emporium), 1525 Pine Street, Redding, CA 96001

For reservations by phone, call (530) 241-4278 or (530) 246-7727.

For more information, call (530) 221-1028 or visit www.riverfrontplayhouse.net.


View the Riverfront Playhouse location in a larger map.

Photos courtesy of Riverfront Playhouse.

For the Cafe Stage Manager’s listings of live theater performances in the North State, please click here.

An actor, director, and artist, Dean Williams has appeared on Shasta County stages for over 25 years in nearly 100 different roles. He has collaborated with many theater groups and is co-founder of The Root Theatre Company. He has also voiced characters for Sega and Playstation video games, and acted for a number of radio, televison and independent film projects. Dean also compiles A News Cafe’s Cafe Stage Manager list of live theater events. Reach him at cafestagemanager@gmail.com.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

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An actor, director, and artist, Dean Williams has appeared on Shasta County stages for over 25 years in nearly 100 different roles. He has collaborated with many theatre groups and is co-founder of The Root Theatre Company. He has also voiced characters for Sega and Playstation video games, and acted for a number of radio, televison and independent film projects. Ever since the first stories were acted out around ancient fires, theatre has held the power to move audiences like no other art form. It remains Williams's focus because live theatre has the potential to tell us every human story, intimately and impactfully. It becomes a magic mirror in which we see our own stories.
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5 Responses

  1. Avatar Polly Baker says:

    What a good, detailed review! I think you might be expecting a bit much from local theater, but at least people know exactly what to expect.

  2. Avatar Jon Lewis says:

    What a thoughtful review, Dean. It has a lot of the elements I like to see in a critique, including reasoned explanations to support your opinions and helpful (but not condescending) information on theatre in general.

    I think we all (actors, directors, backstage crew, audience members) benefit from constructive criticism. Anybody can be catty and go for the cheap laugh but that doesn't help anything.

    I agree that 'Forum' is a big undertaking. I haven't seen the show yet so I'll reserve judgment, but I did watch part of a dress rehearsal and I was favorably impressed by the energy.

    Anyway, I'm glad you've started this 'Stage Manager' forum and I applaud A News Cafe for giving you the space to inform us all.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Avatar Dean Williams says:

      Thank you, Jon. I'd rather hold higher expectations of local theater than settle for lowered expectations.

  3. Avatar Debra says:

    Constructive criticism aside, our family of amateur theatre-goers really enjoyed this production last week and we've been humming "something familiar…a comedy tonight!" ever since! We were especially impressed by the energy of Jon Narducci and Jorin Antero-Towle, but we thought there was a lot of talent and experience evident in the cast. We liked the costumes….and I thought the cartoonish set was an appropriate canvas for the production. We were delighted by this comedy and recommend people check it out!

  4. Avatar kjohnson says:

    Hi – I am definitely glad to find this. cool job!