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Stage Review : Rooney's High Jinks Make A Funny Thing Happen

July 24, 1987|EILEEN SONDAK

SAN DIEGO — "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is a bawdy blend of lowbrow comedy, saucy satire, double-entendres, and old-time burlesque.

When all the classic ingredients are present in the right proportions, "Funny Thing" is a guaranteed rib-tickler, liberally sprinkled with full-blown belly laughs. Sure, the jokes are stale, vulgar and blatantly sexist, and the raucous high jinks are as old as Methuselah. But they can still pack a punch.

Stephen Sondheim, the witty composer and lyricist of this Tony Award-winning musical, sets us up for the zany irreverence in the opening number, when Pseudolus (the wily Roman slave) trumpets loudly, "tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight."

Unfortunately, the scales are weighted too heavily in the star's direction in the production that bowed in at the Civic Theater Tuesday night. With the balance askew, this "Funny Thing" never really hits the heights.

Mickey Rooney, a natural pie-in-the-face vaudevillian, not only takes charge of his role as the scheming slave, he also takes charge of the whole show. And although his shrimp-sized, roly-poly physique suits the running sight gags to a T, his Pseudolus seems less the quick-witted slave obsessed with winning his freedom than the perennial clown vying for the limelight.

Rooney borrows flagrantly from the traditions of burlesque and plows through the silly scenario like a bulldozer, milking every laugh with asides to the audience, and slowing down the pace with heavy-handed unscripted antics. But even before Rooney spoke a word of dialogue at Tuesday's opening, the audience was on its feet offering the old trouper a rousing ovation.

Writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart kept all the stereotypes intact in "Funny Thing." There's the mindless virgin (Jennifer Lee Andrews), so sweet-voiced and coy; the lovesick hero (Bob Walton), Miles Gloriosus; the vainglorious warrior (Michael Dantuono); a bevy of sensuous courtesans; the sex-starved old coot (Robert Nichols), and the whiny bundle of nerves (Lenny Wolpe).

This musical melee through ancient Rome uses mistaken identities--that tried and true tactic--as its major comic thrust. Unfortunately, the first act on opening night only hinted at the show's delights until the irresistible "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" number won the audience over.

An orchestra that sounded as if it were sight reading the score much of the time didn't help things, either. However, a strong lot of singers sold Sondheim's tuneful songs very well, and the sexpot dancing by six scantily dressed courtesans from the nearby house of ill repute added energy to the enterprise.

The pace picked up considerably after intermission, as the convoluted plot began to take shape. A dizzying chase scene that could have been plucked out of an old Mack Sennett movie kept the cast moving at a furious pace, and Bagwell's bellowing rendition of "That Dirty Old Man" was a definite crowd pleaser. Likewise for the "Lovely" duet sung by Wolpe (in drag) and Rooney. Mitchell Greenberg has his moments as the leering Lycus (a procurer), and Dantuono's funeral lamentations as the burly but narcissistic warrior were hilarious.

The costumes are right on target. But the decor has too much of a low-budget look, and the lighting designs call attention to themselves beyond the call of duty.

Almost anything goes in a show in which low comedy is king. But it's risky business to wade too deep in farcical excesses outside of the script. And the frequent local and topical references just distracted from the business on hand.

"A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM" A musical written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Presented by the San Diego Playgoers. Starring Mickey Rooney, Robert Nichols, Lenny Wolpe, Mitchell Greenberg, Michael Dantuono, Marsha Bagwell, Bob Walton, Jennifer Lee Andrews, Frank Nastasi. Directed by George Martin and choreographed by Ethel Martin. Sets by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case. Costumes by Gail Cooper-Hecht. Lighting by Richard Winkler. Sound by Abe Jacob. Musical director is Sherman Frank. At 8 p.m. today and Saturday, with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the San Diego Civic Theatre.

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