Never has the adage “the devil’s in the details” been more relevant to a theatre performance than Forte Theatrical Productions’ valiant attempt of what can be a hilarious visit to long-ago Rome.
Presented to a large, generally enthusiastic audience in the charming confines of the Lancaster Opera House, there was much promise that Stephen Sondheim’s delightful lyrics and tuneful score, plus that madcap story and dialogue from Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart would “have them rolling in the aisles,” but too many major details were either ignored, abandoned or missed all together. With so much effort and talent behind the show, more’s the pity that so many pieces of this musical puzzle remained unsolved.
Let’s start with the band. As musical director, Monica Stankewicz must take her authority for the notes heard and find two other trumpeters. With so many cacks, misfires and splats instead of tidy punctuation and soaring lines, the entire effect was soured every time the trumpets did sound. With such a brassy score (all the better to give the military and pomp flavour) there’s too much at risk to overlook this significant deficiency. The woodwinds, keyboards and bass fare much better, but the erratic pulse and crucial backbeat engine from the percussion also need to improve.
Vocally, there are also hits and misses. In the plus column is Katie Head as Philia. She’s as “Lovely” as her song, only faltering a tad on descending, close intervals. More serious pitch problems tarnish the contributions from Kevin Rodgers’ otherwise amusingly campy portrayal of Hysterium and Domina’s (Adrienne Costello-Sulik) big song, “That Dirty Old Man.” When Pseudolus (Philip Jarosz) and Hysterium team up for the “Lovely” reprise, they suffer the same affliction of intonation anomalies—particularly during the attempts at harmony. This is all the more frustrating because of Jarosz’s considerable comic gifts which almost single-handedly carry the show.
Before leaving the voices, let’s turn off the body mics. Like a broken record, these pages have nattered about this key issue at the Shaw and Stratford Shakeseare Festivals and the Musical Fare Theatre Company (cross-references below). The quality is poor, the distortion annoying—notably in Head’s upper range—and any hope for stereophonic effect is lost (bodies move across the stage but their lyrics/dialogue don’t). Why risk all of that when good old-fashioned projection from the cast and attention to dynamics from the orchestra can achieve so much more naturally. Recently, the Shaw Festival abandoned reinforcement (in an equally sized room) and produced a magnificent result. More than that, think of the savings on the electricity bill!
Overall, the women’s costumes (all designed by Rodgers) looked fine but the men had severe undergarment mismatches. Hero (Michael Wallace had just the right mix of testosterone and naïveté) looked a little too femme in his over-starched skirt that billowed up in the rear like a five-dollar tramp. When the nether regions did slip into view, at least an all-white sport boxer left the family rating intact. But with farmer-tan arms and lily-white, fuzzy legs, it appeared that the sun never did shine in his part of Rome. Any body makeup in the house?
The multi-purpose Proteans (Adam Bouley, Brian Bauer, David Myers) added much mirth and mayhem to the proceedings, yet their sackcloth, everyman gear was belied by jet-black shorts and Calvin Klein muscle shirts, keeping their physiques under wraps but nearly two-dozen centuries out of sartorial sync. (Note to director Christian Riso: The picking-the-teeth-with-a-sword-then-sharing-the harvest-with-a-colleague gag should have died at rehearsal—it completely upstages the important action and drags the tone into the sub-gutter for no apparent reason.) Having Pseudolus sporting long johns fit for a Canadian winter under his slavish attire also rang false. Comparatively, the courtesans looked divine, with only the clunky castanets spoiling their body/bawdy parade.
With all of that said, Riso still has much to be proud of. The show moves easily and quickly due to his ability to let the humour lead everything else. Great performances came from Jarosz, Guy Tomassi as the lecherous Senex and the buff/wonderfully-full-of-himself Miles Gloriosus (Patrick Cameron struts better than most peacocks). Cathleen Riso’s choreography also added much to the dizzying dilemmas of love, lust and the quest for freedom.
If this energetic troupe’s next offering can dig deep into the minutiae of all facets of production, then a result of the first order should be anticipated. JWR