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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ romps in Abrams

Critic At Large

Abrams Spotlight Productions/After Dark Productions

Show programs. (Warren Gerds)

ABRAMS, Wis. (WFRV) – A funny thing happened on the way out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first show in 19 months for the community theater in Abrams is bawdy.

It’s got a brothel with concubines and the song “That Dirty Old Man” and a showstopper about the virtues (wink, wink) of having a maid.

In a comical way, theater is carrying on in Abrams.

Abrams Spotlight Productions has called on its adult theater self, After Dark Productions, to present “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

The musical is a Broadway classic. It’s also a classic in another way, being that it revisits farces from ancient Rome 22 or so centuries ago. The ancient Roman names are the hard part of the show. The humor is easy, if saucy.

Farces are outrageous, and this production runs with the out-there story and over-the-top humor. The cast is game for tongue-in-cheek fun. Longtime director Wayne Strei skillfully guides the players to the treasures in the script.

The setup: A slave with a nose for trouble convinces his young master to award him freedom if he connects the naïve youth with the new arrival in the brothel next door. The task is near impossible, being that the sweetie is promised to a legendary army captain, plus has caught the wandering eye of the youth’s father.

That’s just for starters for the action that erupts on the troupe’s small stage. The youth’s mother is a force to be reckoned with, as is the family’s excitable head slave.

Maneuvering smoothly through the slave Pseudolus’s shady shenanigans is Elizabeth Jolly. Hers is a quick-think role, and there’s always some near-disaster to tip-toe out of at the last second – so much hinges on the skills she has.

Important in the production is the costuming, with many fine touches on display in character after character – the naïve youth, the captain and the sweet concubine whose white gown is created three ways in a wild scene. The looks for the other concubines are all catchy.

Nifty performances abound – Ali Carlson as the domineering mother Domina, Bobby Buffington as her lust-minded husband Senex, Abby Frank as the sweet Philia (sweet of voice, too), Theodore James Hock as the naïve Hero, Mike Eserkaln as the shifty brothel owner Lycus and Bob Maloney as the ancient Erronius, who is sent on a task that becomes a joke that’s repeated in milk-this-time slow motion.

Two performances are outstanding. Preston Pelegrin unleashes Hysterium, the head slave who lives up to his name as he continually is caught in a hysterical situation. Every line Preston Pelegrin delivers includes a special voicing – a little rise at the end as an extra note of hysteria. Will Knaapen roars as Miles Gloriosus. His physical presence dominates the scene (again helped by great costuming), with his voice an instrument of power and his demeanor that of mountainous vanity.

Of course, this is not a Broadway production. A lot of make-do is part of what the troupe can do. The music is recorded, though on the other hand, the theater’s acoustics don’t require wireless headset amplification.

At the core is the original creation, with two names standing out. Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and oh-so-clever lyrics, was on his way to becoming a Broadway icon. Larry Gelbart, who helped write the story, was on his way to screen fame – TV’s “M.A.S.H” for one. Their expertise from 1962 ripples so Abrams Spotlight Productions can find success today.

***

Creative: Music and lyrics – Stephen Sondheim; book – Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart; director – Wayne Strei; assistant director – Abby Frank; stage manager – Debra Jolly; assistant stage manager – Tanya Brehmer; choreographer – Ali Carlson; technical director – Bill Koehne; costume designers – Debra Jolly, Katie Jackson; vocal coach – Evelyn Smoot; sound designer – Tanya Brehmer; light board operator – Jim Klein; set builders – Mike Konkel, Vince Bauldry, Cory Rank, Bill Koehne, David Jolly; set painting – Mary Westberg, McKenna Coffey, Will Knaapen; graphic designer – Wendy Diehlmann; photographer – Megan Pierquet

Cast

Pseudolus – Elizabeth Jolly

Hysterium – Preston Pelegrin

Hero – Theodore James Hock

Philia – Abby Frank

Miles Gloriosus – Will Knaapen

Senex – Bobby Buffington

Domina – Ali Carlson

Lycus – Mike Eserkaln

Erronius – Bob Maloney

Tintinabula – Chloe Jansen

Vibrata – Maggie Dernehl

The Geminae Twins – Elizabeth Finger, Eleanor Finger

Gymnasia – Maggie Monte

Soldiers – McKenna Coffey, Kevin Kuhn

The Proteans – Sydney Eserkaln, Sydney Surber

Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes

Remaining performances: 1 p.m. Sept. 19, 7 p.m. Sept. 23-25; and 1 p.m. Sept. 26

Info: abramspotlightproductions.com

***

Songs

Act I

“A Comedy Tonight” – Pseudolus and Company

“Love, I Hear” – Hero

“Free” – Pseudolus and Hero

“The House of Marcus Lycus” – Lycus, Pseudolus and the Courtesans

“Lovely” – Philia and Hero

“Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” – Senex, Pseudolus, Hysterium and Lycus

“I’m Calm” – Hysterium

“Impossible” – Hero and Senex

“Bring Me My Bride” – Miles Gloriosus and Company

Act II

“That Dirty Old Man” – Domina

“That’ll Show Him” – Philia

“Lovely” (reprise) – Pseudolus and Hysterium

“Funeral Sequence” – Pseudolus, Miles Gloriosus and Company

“Finale” – Company

***

NEXT: “Guys and Dolls” musical, Dec. 2-5, 9-12.

THE VENUE: The Nancy Byng Community Theater is located at 5852 Maple St. in Abrams. The 167-seat theater is the former St. Louis Catholic Church, built in 1927. Seating is in individual padded chairs. Roman arched windows from the former church are uncovered, revealing eight stained-glass windows. Wooden walls and the ceiling panels made of compressed cardboard are painted black. Wooden flooring includes the image of the classic comedy/drama theater masks in the center aisle. In the rear of the theater is a concession area that serves pop, popcorn, candy and light alcoholic beverages that may be consumed in the theater.

THE PERSON: Nancy Byng was involved in many facets of creativity, from painting to costume designing to directing to writing scripts. She co-founded the theater company on 2003 with her great-nephew, Brandon Byng, who continues his involvement in directing and acting in Clintonville and elsewhere. Nancy Byng died in 2011.

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