"Something appealing, something appalling."
That's what we're promised in the opening number of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Fortunately, California Music Theatre's "Forum," at Pasadena Civic Auditorium, offers more that's appealing than appalling.
It wasn't a foregone conclusion, considering some of this group's recent productions, such as its recent "Kiss Me Kate." One big improvement is the audibility of the words. Nearly every phrase in Stephen Sondheim's score and the Burt Shevelove-Larry Gelbart book can be understood.
The performances deserve to be understood too. The production is held together exceptionally well by E. E. Bell's Pseudolus, the wily Roman slave who hopes to win his freedom by uniting his young master Hero (Richard Waterhouse) with the dim-but-winsome object of his affections (Heather Lee).
Bell looks so much like Zero Mostel, the original Pseudolus, that separate pictures of the two actors in the souvenir program look as if they could be depicting the same man. But Bell's Pseudolus has his own distinctive sweetness.
With his ample double chin and twinkling eyes, Bell looks downright jolly. His conniving has a soft edge; when he sings of how he wants to be free, it's genuinely moving. Even his leering seems rather innocent. He zooms about the stage with precision and sings with power.
Michael Tucci's Hysterium, the house servant who becomes a reluctant co-conspirator with Pseudolus, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, exactly where he should be.
Barney Martin's hangdog face is perfect for the role of Senex, the hen-pecked master of Pseudolus' household. Waterhouse and Lee are amusingly blithe as the young lovers; Lee in particular has adroit comic timing. "For us, there will never be happiness," she says with a sigh. "We will have to learn to be happy without it." Yes.
Jack Ritschel looks properly crass as the procurer. Harvey Vernon plays the aged neighbor with the same sense of vaudeville style that prevails throughout the production. Kelly Britt is a sharp-tongued harpie.
Tom Netherton doesn't make the full-scale impression, vocally or physically, that Captain Miles Gloriosus ought to make. There were a couple of errant moments in Ward Carlisle's lighting design. The opening number wasn't quite as funny as you would expect "Comedy Tonight" to be; wasn't Jeff Rizzo's musical direction a little too slow at the top of the show?
Generally, though, director Gary Davis and Rizzo deliver a smartly paced and sung "Forum." Best of all, for those who remember the most recent "Forum" at the Pantages, there is nothing resembling Mickey Rooney's stage-hogging. Now there was something that was more appalling than appealing.
At 300 E. Green St., Pasadena, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through July 2. Tickets: $15-$30; (213) 410-1062.