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Theater Review

Tropical Winds Refresh 'Forum'

The Roman musical farce gets an inventive Pacific Islander twist from the East West Players.

March 23, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

Among the funny things that happen on the way to the forum, at East West Players' David Henry Hwang Theater, is that a bunch of ancient Romans morph into Pacific Islanders.

They're dressed like Romans in "Comedy Tonight," the introduction to "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." But in the next scene, when they begin enacting the story of a slave who hopes to win his freedom by bringing two young lovers together, they shed some of Ken Takemoto's costumes, befitting a more tropical climate, and don outfits made from such materials as flowers and straw, with abstract designs painted on their skin.

Likewise, although the program says we're on a street in Rome, the looming facades of the three homes in Victoria Petrovich's set forsake classical details in favor of the stern look of Easter Island gods. Near the top of the deities' visages are eyes that open to serve as second-story windows.

Other big hints that we're no longer in Tiber territory: black-clad stagehands, as in Kabuki, assist with props and puppets. Some of the songs are accompanied by hula-style gestures, choreographed by Casey Kono. In a second-act escape, the slave Pseudolus leads his pursuers into a Filipino Tinikling dance. The soldiers are so distracted by trying to avoid the dance's clashing bamboo poles that the wily slave escapes.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 24, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater review--Radmar Agana Jao and Hisato Masuyama's names were transposed in a photo caption accompanying a review of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" in Friday's Calendar.

Tim Dang's staging is probably the most inventive "Forum" you're likely to see, and it's certainly the most redesigned production yet in East West Players' line of Stephen Sondheim musicals. The innovations are a refreshing change from the traditional sword-and-sandals look.

"Forum" is ripe for design tinkering, for the original was already a cross-cultural blend: American burlesque and comedy grafted onto ancient Roman farce. The show suggests that you can do anything for a laugh--why not go to the other side of the planet?

On the other hand, Dang hasn't significantly changed the book by Larry Gelbart (who was present on opening night) and Burt Shevelove, nor Sondheim's score. True, the backstage, bare-bones band sounds thin and tinny compared with a big-theater orchestra, and a few of the singing voices lack sufficient power. But generally the jokes hit their targets.

Gedde Watanabe is an irrepressibly high-spirited Pseudolus. He takes such delight in making mischief, and in anticipating his freedom, that a wide smile hardly ever leaves his face. Most of the time, his sense of mirth is contagious, but an occasional touch of crassness in his wheeling and dealing would add a little variety and also provide a contrast that would enrich one particular sight gag, which involves fake smiling.

The second bananas are in fine form: the lecherous growl of Michael Hagiwara's Senex, the high anxiety of Radmar Agana Jao's Hysterium, the booming voices of Kerry Carnahan's Domina and Anthony Begonia's Miles Gloriosus--with Begonia's Attila the Hun looks especially effective. Michael K. Lee and Yumi Iwama make a pair of perfectly pretty, lightheaded and somewhat light-voiced lovers.

*

* "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.; except this Saturday, 8 p.m. only; March 31, 2 p.m. only; and April 1, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends April 15. $25-$35. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Gedde Watanabe: Prologus/Pseudolus

Michael K. Lee:Hero

Yumi Iwama:Philia

Radmar Agana Jao:Hysterium

Michael Hagiwara:Senex

Kerry K. Carnahan:Domina

Anthony Begonia:Miles Gloriosus

Hisato Masuyama:Marcus Lycus

Rodney Kageyama:Erronius

Kurt Kuniyoshi, Marc Macalintal, Denise Iketani:Proteans

Michelle Ingkavet, Kim Montelibano, Michelle Noh, Diana Toshiko:Courtesans

Musical direction by Scott Nagatani. Lighting by G. Shizuko Herrera. Sound by Kaname Morishita. Production stage manager Ricardo Figueroa.

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