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THEATER REVIEW : Good Performances, Crisp Staging Keep 'Forum' Fresh and Fun

July 25, 1993|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DUARTE — Hopping from Gilbert and Sullivan to Stephen Sondheim with aplomb, the Duarte Center Theater has opened its new quarters by tackling musical theater with a vengeance.

It's one thing if you're the San Gabriel Civic Light Opera with a whole orchestra in the pit.

But it's more daunting if you're a tiny venue in Duarte and your only musical accompaniment is the house pianist, however versatile the energetic Nancy Ramos may be.

But by segueing from "The Mikado," which recently launched the new theater, to the bawdy Roman jamboree "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the Duarte Center Theatre is quickly captivating new theater-goers in the theatrically reawakened eastern San Gabriel Valley.

Created by Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart and Sondheim 31 years ago, the show is a larky pastiche of Roman comedies by Plautus.

An updated revival bowed at the Ahmanson in 1971, with stars Phil Silvers and Larry Blyden, en route to a Broadway reincarnation in '72. It's been a popular revival in smaller L.A.-area theaters ever since.

But it's comparatively rare in the San Gabriel Valley. In fact, for many it could just as well be a new show.

And they roared in Duarte--at the rotund but remarkably agile Thomas D. Bruner as the wheeler-dealer Pseudolus (a role originated by Zero Mostel). And other Roman characters, such as the lascivious senior citizen Senex (the fey Marion Sarnowski), the flesh peddler Lycus (the scuzzy Barry Agin) and the chief house slave Hysterium (the humorously hyper Brad Kahn), are almost as funny as Bruner.

Directed by Fran Maddocks, the production is a happy, almost buoyant mix of what the director, in a program note, calls "vaudeville, romance and total silliness."

Maddocks once acted in the show in another production, and her appreciation of the play's lowest-common-denominator burlesque, combined with crisp staging, is at the core of the Duarte production's achievement.

Although the result appears slapdash, this Forum's raw look is deceptive. And even though the singing voices are the show's weak suit, the production is surprisingly loaded with talent. Even a minor part such as a domineering wife (named Domina, no less) is carried off with amusing hauteur by Helen Spencer.

The arrogant, insufferably narcissistic Roman commander Miles Glorious is wonderfully played, with a kind of GQ magazine-cover panache, by Gregory Brett Boardman.

Other flavorful turns are Gary White's wispy Eunich, Charles Parker's romantic swain Hero, and Will Becker's dim and blind Erronius, who endlessly circles his Roman street.

Unfortunately, as the love interest, the squeaky-voiced and pale Philia (Tania Korber) almost fades into the set's Roman columns. Nor do the writers give her much to do. In any event, women are bywords in Shevelove and Gelbart's musical book. The male characters walk away with it.

'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum'

Where: Duarte Center Theatre, 2160 E. Huntington Drive.

When: Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m. Ends Aug. 8. $10.

Information: (818) 303-9521.

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