Back in the 1980s when funnyman Mickey Rooney was touring in this toga-togged tuner, he told an interviewer, “After you sing the opening number (‘Comedy Tonight’), there’s not one laugh in this show other than what the actors put into it.” “Forum” is slight of book and features one of Sondheim’s lesser scores; from its inception, the show’s success has depended on the outrageously broad physical humor of such adept burlesque pros as Rooney and Zero Mostel. Gedde Watanabe (“E.R.,” “Gung Ho”) exudes a much gentler persona, eliciting more smiles than guffaws, and simply does not instill enough energy into the proceedings to carry the show on his own. Tim Dang’s surprisingly tame staging doesn’t help either.
Very loosely based on the comedies of ancient Roman gagman Plautus (254-184 B.C.), the action follows the efforts of the hapless but resourceful slave Pseudolus (Watanabe) to win his freedom by uniting his youthful, lovesick owner Hero (Michael K. Lee) with the woman of his dreams, the beautiful but empty-headed courtesan-in-waiting Philia (Yumi Iwama). That’s the plot, folks.
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The rest of the show is meant to be a series of stimulus-response vaudeville shtick, sight gags and runway jokes that propel Pseudolos through one near-disaster after another.
Unfortunately, Watanabe and cast never achieve that zany level of comedia dell arte outrageousness needed to propel the work into a bawdy, slapstick free-for-all that transcends the plot for the sake of the yuck.
Despite his low-key approach to the proceedings, Watanabe does have his moments. More boyish charmer than comic rogue, he actually achieves an entertaining level of lasciviousness when inspecting an assortment of neighboring courtesans. He also displays his capable vocal talents to good effect when waxing poetic about Pseudolus’ dreams of liberty (“Free” ) or joining in on Sondheim’s clever musical ode to domestic hanky-panky (“Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”).
Much more on the mark comedically is Radmar Agana Jao’s frenzied outing as fellow slave Hysterium, who is constantly being victimized by Pseudolus’ schemes. Also notable is Hisato Masuyama’s comical turn as Marcus, the greedy but cowardly owner of the neighboring house of ill repute. Not faring as well are the undernourished portrayals of Lee and Iwama as the unrequited young lovers.
Anthony Begonia turns in the most notable performance as the monumentally egotistical Roman general Miles Gloriosus. His over-the-top posturing sets him up as a perfect foil for Pseudolus and friends.
The accompanying two-keyboard accompaniment of Scott Nagatani and Randall Guiyama would be more effective if it were less synthesized and more orchestral sounding. On the other hand, the Polynesian-influenced sets and costumes of Victoria Petrovich and Ken Takemoto, respectively, look right at home on the streets of Rome.