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[whitespace] Need a Lifeline? Jamie Torcellini, right, with Carol Swarbrick, plays a mischievous Roman slave who plots to gain his freedom in 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.'

Photograph by David Allen

Forum Follies

American Musical Theater of San Jose keeps the fun hopping in 'Forum'

By Rob Pratt

THOUGH A MUSICAL theater staple, Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (first produced on Broadway in 1962) lacks both the lyrical precision of West Side Story, which vaulted Sondheim to fame five years earlier, and the anthemic tunefulness of 1959's Gypsy. What has kept Forum a favorite is the silliness of a story loaded with zingers, puns and put-ons and a tradition of staging the show with so many sight gags that audiences weep both with laughter and from fear of blinking lest one riotous gesture or pratfall go unnoticed.

In the current American Musical Theater of San Jose production, director and choreographer Greg Ganakis never lets his fine cast lose sight of Forum's so-critical fun factor. The stage almost always shimmers with motion, both in dance numbers that verge on the gymnastic or in highly gesticulated dramatic scenes. The actors often seize opportunities to improvise an aside, and Ganakis has built in a handful of great new guffaws, including a show-stopping gag that riffs on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

For the lead role of Psuedolus, a mischievous household slave who plots to earn his freedom by matchmaking for his master's son (thereby setting in motion a scheme that quickly careens out of control), Jamie Torcellini draws both on Zero Mostel's bawdy original and Phil Silvers' steely 1972 Tony-winning revival, adding an appealing rough-and-tumble physical element and a self-effacing humor. ("Hair Club for Men," he improvised when his headband--and hairpiece--fell from his pate after one first-act comic tussle. "I'm also a client.") The supporting players are all equally strong--particularly Jay Rogers as Hysterium, the excitable head slave, and Joseph Ribiero as Lycus, the "procurer of courteseans."

Technically, American Musical Theater's Forum has a few hitches. Orchestra balance never really locks in except on the big-band numbers; the sizable string section--at seven members, it's almost a third of the pit orchestra--never really makes its presence known. And a sound operator slow to turn up microphones before actors speak their lines only makes matters worse in a hall where the acoustics tend to swallow dialogue.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through March 25 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. at 8pm. Tickets are $40-$55. (888.455.7469)

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From the March 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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