Washington's "Forum" fires comedy like a Roman Candle

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” despite its simplistic plot, familiar songs, broad characterizations, and single-set format, is an incredibly difficult show to produce well with high school students. It is, however, well suited for Washington High School in Fremont.

The entrance of Miles Gloriosus (Chris Labarbera) and the cast of "Forum"
What makes “Forum” difficult? First, the script depends on expert comic timing that the original stars honed after years on the Vaudeville stage. The performers must have mastery of early twentieth-century comic styles, they must be verbally agile and physically strong enough to handle Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s fast-paced, pun-filled book, be confident enough to improvise directly with audience members, and sing the notoriously difficult music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. It’s a tall order in what looks like a simple musical.

And that brings us to Washington High School. “Forum” is, without a doubt, a very male-centric show, and right now, Matt Ballin’s boys are particularly strong. “Forum,” which is loosely based on a few of the plays of the Roman playwright Plautus, revolves around the story of Pseudolus (Andre Vernot), a clever Roman slave who craves his freedom, and Hero (Griffin Sloves), the young master who has fallen in love with a courtesan (Hannah Stovall, who shares the role with Tiffany Morales) from the house of ill repute, owned by procurer Marcus Lycus (played by Jace Guerrero) next door.  Hero promises Pseudolus his freedom if he can win the girl for him. Naturally, there are complications: the courtesan girl Philia has been promised by to the acclaimed Roman soldier Miles Gloriosus, played by Chris Labarbara, who shares the role, and another, with Genesis Ednalino.)

To carry out his elaborate plan, Psuedolus must work around Hero’s father Senex (played deliciously by Joshua Laquian) who’s going through a mid-life crisis of his own and has eyes for Philia), the head slave Hysterium (Andrew Del Fierro, who also has an assistant director credit) and Hero’s mother Domina, finely voiced by Marissa Madan.

What follows is a parade of slapstick comedy, mistaken identities, cross-dressing, double-entendres, puns, and door-slamming farce that never slows down its energy for more than two hours, and leaves the audience howling.  The audience was made up of mostly high school students when I saw the show, students who were experiencing “Forum” for the first time. The kids were literally rolling in the aisles.

Jace Guerrero as Marcus Lycus and three of his courtesans
Andre Vernot is a capable Pseudolus with a nice sense of timing and a strong physical presence.  “Forum” is really Pseudolus’ show, and he carries it well. He’s utterly unafraid to break the fourth wall and walk directly into the audience, involving unsuspecting audience members into the action. As Hysterium, Andrew Del Fierro throws himself into the role wholeheartedly. “Forum” marks Del Fierro’s first musical, and it’s only his third show.  He’s as good as any of the more experienced performers at other high schools, and he should absolutely continue in theatre arts—he’s a natural.

 Jace Guerrero’s Marcus Lycus is a tamer version of the role suitable for high school, and that gives him the opportunity to focus on his excellent timing and delivery.  As Hero, Griffin Sloves, who wears his glasses on stage as the original cast members did to reinforce that the musical is not to be taken too literally, is adorable. He’s at his best in his duet “Impossible” with Joshua Laquian’s Senex.  Rounding out the cast is Nick Garibay as Erronius, the old man in search of his two children who were stolen by pirates. An often-overlooked role, Garibay’s strong presence keeps him always in mind.

Matt Ballin’s mighty male actors are well-trained, talented actors who have exceptional diction and stage presence. Their comedy outshines the musical aspect of this production, which occasionally strays off course. As I mentioned at the top of this article, “Forum” is musically difficult, and for musical theatre beginners to take on Sondheim at all is very brave.

In “Forum,” girls have less to do. It could not have escaped the minds of the young women in this production that the script treats all females as objects to be lusted after or reviled. However, girls can be just as funny as boys, and if the young women who play the Courtesans embrace the burlesque spirit of the show, they’ll have a lot more fun onstage—and upstage the boys in this musical battle of the sexes.  The courtesans are played by Destiny Nguyen, Kimberly Henderson, AnnaMarie Goodson, Melanie Campbell, and Talia Dubois.

Andrew Del Fierro, left, as Hysterium, Joshua Laquian, in blue, as Senex, and
Andrew Vernot, kneeling, as Pseudolus
Director Matt Ballin cast Chris Labarbera and Genesis Ednalino to alternate between playing the swaggering braggart Miles Gloriousus and Gymnasia, the sixth courtesan. I suspect these two large, muscular boys take no guff at all for their campy drag turns on stage, and it gives them a chance to see this show from the girls’ perspective.

This production of “Forum” is not as bawdy as one who knows the show would expect, but as a farce, it’s exceptional. It absolutely shines in its very well-directed and performed chase scenes. Helping them all are the three Proteans, characters who take on many roles. In this production, Ballin has twins Jenna and Ryan Frisbey, and freshman Connor McCage.  These three have the most freedom of all of the cast members to improvise and play on stage, and they are clearly having fun. 

Even if you’ve never seen a production of “Forum,” you’ll enjoy this version and these performers—they’ll make you scream with laughter. 

The Wedding Singer at American High is Edgy, High-Energy Fun

by Pamela Rosen

American High School in Fremont is pulling out all the stops with their high-energy production of The Wedding Singer, a charming, edgy love letter to the raucous days of the mid 1980s.  Based on the Adam Sandler movie of the same name (and carrying over some of the same songs), the musical brings from the movie some of the same puerile humor for which Sandler is known, but it also brings something unexpected—a lot of heart.

    Lelan Fernando, left Lance Fernando, center, and Shahil Patel, right,
    rock out in The Wedding Singer at American High School
   Photo credit:Morgan Grace Gutierrez

The Wedding Singer tells the story of Robbie Hart (wildly talented junior Lance Fernando), a wedding singer in a band with his two friends, Sammy and George. Robbie’s band is making a good living—and Robbie, too, is about to marry his own girlfriend, Linda (Isabelle Chua, who gives a gritty, eyebrow-raising performance). Everything quickly falls apart for Robby when Linda leaves him at the altar.  Robby can’t bear to sing at weddings anymore, but a sweet waitress at the reception hall, Julia, (newcomer Julia Lyell) reaches out to him in friendship—and finds herself falling for Robby.  But Julia already has a boyfriend in the form of Wall Street Yuppie Glen Gulia, and wealthy, cellphone-toting Glen promises all the material comforts the ‘80s produced—and Robby can’t compete.

Lance Fernando is a likeable Robbie, and his performance is top-notch. He’s polished, confident, and fearless onstage, and he plays the acoustic guitar well. If he doesn’t quite reach the comic depths of despair required to land him, literally, in the dumpster after breaking down at a wedding performance, that is a quibble. He carries the show quite ably.  Lance’s older brother, AHS graduate Lelan Fernando, has a fine comic timing as Sammy, and Shahil Patel is hilarious as Boy George wannabe George. As a trio, the audience can’t get enough of them.  As romantic waitress Julia (a role originated by Drew Barrymore), junior Julia Lyell does a good job, and manages to hold her own against the considerable combined theatrical power of the Fernando Brothers and Patel. That’s not an easy thing to do.

Other remarkable performances include Christina Chan as hip grandma Rosie, who can’t separate public from private information and can cause the whole audience to squirm in unison. Firebrand Chelsea Torrado makes jaws drop as Julia’s promiscuous friend Holly, who makes a play for Robbie in the second act, and Matthew Ho, in his first theatrical experience, is appropriately evil as aggressive, self-centered villain Glen Guglia. 

Julia Lyell as Julia and Matthew Ho as Glen Gulia in The Wedding Singer 
Photo Credit: Morgan Grace Gutierrez
The entire ensemble is surprisingly strong. The ensemble works together like a machine, all of them spewing energy, well-developed characterizations, dancing precision to spectacular choreography and difficult harmonies. Even in the few points when the show runs out of steam, the talented, disciplined cast easily overcomes these momentary script defects and comes back roaring.

Director Troy River was meticulous in his recreation of 1985 for the stage. Starting with a versatile, basic set of black panels cross-hatched with ‘80s teal and blue squares, the set moves us from a New Jersey reception hall to Robbie’s  basement bedroom (the detail work in the bedroom is amazing) to various outdoor locations and even to Las Vegas. Every piece is classic ‘80s, down to the blanket on the bed and the posters on the walls.

River was also exceptionally brave in allowing this production to go up unedited for language, drug references, and sexual content.  While many high schools feel they must clean up anything that might be controversial, River left the script of The Wedding Singer unaltered. While it may be jarring to see young teens spouting the F-word or strutting in skimpy costumes (at least onstage—it’s no worse than anything any of them would hear or say on a daily basis in real life) leaving it in kept the spirit of the original, and was necessary. I applaud the choice.

Adam Sandler intended The Wedding Singer to be a love letter to the decade in which he came of age, the 1980s, and the stage version retained that giddy style. The star-crossed, alcohol- and drug-fueled youth portrayed in the show would, today, be the age of the parents of the kids in this production.  (Perhaps those parents are smirking quietly to themselves.) As such, many of the ‘80s references to jelly beans, New Coke, “blow,” laughing at the idea that someone would ever pay $3 for a cup of coffee, and 20-pound cellphone batteries are completely lost on the young audience.

If you weren’t born yet during the ‘80s, do a little reading this week and get to American High School in Fremont to see it. If you were there and remember (even if it’s a little foggy) you’ll have the time of your life.

The Wedding Singer continues this weekend at American High School’ s Theatre 70 April 25-27 at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $12 general admission, $10 students and seniors. Call (510) 796-1776 ext. 57702 for reservations and more information.

Multi-Cultural "Once On This Island" at Mission San Jose

By Pamela Rosen

Mission San Jose High School in Fremont is one of the top schools in the country for its academics, and it’s a national contender in science and math competitions.  The kids at Mission are so busy, putting on a musical there hasn’t been a priority. The last time Mission tried, they didn’t have enough interest to even fill out the cast.  Enter Tanya Roundy, the new drama teacher at Mission, and the spring production of Once on this Island.

Daniel Zopfi as Daniel and MC Mendonca as TiMoune in
Mission San Jose High School's Once on This Island
With Once on this Island, the 1991 Lynne Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical about a peasant girl’s faith in love on a tropical island, Roundy was able to pull together a large cast, many of whom are experiencing theatre for the first time. The show is a good choice for Mission’s re-entry into the world of high school theatre. Roundy employed 10 student choreographers, who brought their friends into the show, and also rounded out the cast and crew with all of own six children. She also brought in six little girls under the age of 10 to expand the cast to full capacity.

Originally written and cast along racial lines, the show can be tweaked to downplay the racial elements and focus on multicultural themes.  Because a large majority of the cast comes from Asian or Indian backgrounds, the production at Mission became an “Indian/Asian fusion,” according to Roundy, to celebrate and reflect the culture of the school. The result is a rich pageant of colors, textures, and sounds unlike anything one would expect from traditional high school theatre.

The story of Once on this Island can be confusing at times.  It has elements of the original Little Mermaid story, Romeo and Juliet, and pieces of Greek mythology blended together in a modern tropical setting.  Through a series of storytellers, we come to know a peasant couple who rescue a small orphaned girl, TiMoune, from a tree, where a storm had washed her.  We also meet four gods--Erzulie, the goddess of Love, Asaka, the goddess of Water, Agwe, the god of Earth (played by the director’s son, freshman Josh Roundy), and Papa Ge, the demon of Death, played by James Gao. They quarrel with each other and control the fates of the peasants.  Also on the island are the rich French landowners, who control the tourism on the island.

The gods create a storm, which causes a terrible automobile crash, and throws an injured, unconscious young Frenchman directly into the arms of a now-grown TiMoune. TiMoune feels that saving the life of this young man is the reason the gods allowed her to be saved as a child, and, in nursing him to health, falls in love with him.  When Papa Ge comes to take the young man, TiMoune makes a deal to trade her own life for his.

Here’s where the story starts to get tricky.  For some reason, Pap Ge allows both TiMoune and the young man, Daniel Beauxhomme (played by Daniel Zopfi), to live, but Daniel’s wealthy father Armand (played very regally by Sumedh Bhattacharya) finds the boy and takes him back to the palatial hotel they own.  TiMoune decides, with the help of Erzulie, to travel to the other side of the island to charm her way past the gates of the hotel and back to her Daniel, where she reveals herself to him as his savior.  Daniel has no memory of her, but falls for her charms anyway.  At a party at the hotel, TiMoune beguiles the guests with her dancing. She quickly meets Andrea Deveraux, (played by Lynnea Shuck, who shares the role with Ahsas Sood), and learns that she is the fiancĂ©e Daniel has failed to mention.  Papa Ge returns and offers TiMoune her life back if she will kill Daniel, and TiMoune is left with a terrible choice.

The cast is strongest and most confident as an ensemble, though a few featured performers stand out.  Leena Yin as Mama Euralie, Ti Moune’s mother, has a strong presence and a commanding voice, and her performance is lovely. She shares the role with Lucy Shen.  James Gao as Papa Ge, Shivani Ariathurai as Asaka, and Soukhya Inamdar as Erzulie each deliver memorable performances with solid singing voices.  Pretty MC Mendonca, who shares the role of TiMoune with Gelsey Plaza, is lithe and charming. The small orchestra is spot-on, with never a sour note.

It’s a good first effort for a school that hasn’t had a theatre department for a while. Seeing the arts coming back to the schools always gladdens the heart, and with this colorful, sparkly production, Roundy can reach other students, pique interests, and start to rebuild Mission San Jose’s arts program.

Once on This Island continues this weekend, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:00 p.m.  at Mission San Jose High School,  41717 Palm Avenue, Fremont, CA Tickets are available at: http://www.showtix4u.com/index_classic.php?search=ca

Irvington rocks into Springtime with tech-savvy Birdie

By PR Levey

“Bye Bye Birdie” is practically a rite of passage in the world of high school musicals. It’s hard to believe, but there are people in their 70's now who were in their high school productions of “Birdie,” and today, teens all over the world are still putting on their poodle skirts or slicking back their hair to take the trip to Sweet Apple, Ohio.  Now it’s Irvington Conservatory Theatre’s turn to bring this beloved, iconic musical to the stage, performing at Valhalla Theatre in Fremont, March 7-23.

This smartly-designed production is both an homage to, and a comment on the mythical idyllic life of teens in small town America in the 1950s. Blending distinctly 21st-century technology, like robotic lighting and big-screen video, with the familiar ‘50s look gives the production a fresh, modern feel. The open sets are modular, multi-level, and a sleek silver, with delightful vintage furniture and props popping in and out to create a typical 50s kitchen,  a small-town Tiki bar, or a perfect “Mad Men” New York office. Irvington’s production is sophisticated and cheeky.  Video clips, which intermingle historic footage with additional material from the cast, occasionally throw jarring images at us to remind us that the nostalgic 1950s were, in retrospect, a pretty scary time.

Nothing is scary in Sweet Apple, though, and the beloved story of fifteen year old Kim MacAfee (winsome and perfectly-cast senior Katie Kelly, most recently seen at Irvington in The Diviners), who just got “pinned” to the wonderfully dorky Hugo Peabody (freshman Tim Sanders, who audiences may remember as Huck Finn in StarStruck Theatre’s Tom Sawyer last year) learning that she’s just been chosen at random to be kissed on national television by teen heartthrob Conrad Birdie.  Conrad’s been drafted into the army, and his songwriter, Albert Peterson, at the insistence of his longtime, long-suffering secretary/girlfriend Rosie Alvarez, has written a farewell song for Conrad. The song is intended to be the ticket out of show business and into normal married life for Rosie and Albert.  However, nothing goes as planned: Hugo’s jealous, Rosie is frustrated with Albert’s undying devotion to his overbearing mother, and Conrad and Kim long for a fling before settling down.

Robert Ritchie is engaging as Albert Peterson, a pleasant-voiced dreamer who’s painfully henpecked by two women—he’s a man with a good heart and no spine to hold it up. As Rosie, Jennica  Christman is an inspired choice. She represents everything that women were fighting for at the time – and to this day --  in a single character. She’s a scorned woman, a career woman, an ethnic minority, and a single woman in a man’s world, and she deals with every one of these issues in the space of two hours. Without a hint of the abrasiveness or desperation seen in other Rosies, Jennica Christman shines, even through material which modern audiences may find politically incorrect.

Director Scott Di Lorenzo found a dream of a Conrad Birdie in Gabriel Block. Block does not list a great deal of theatre experience in his bio, but you’d never know it from his performance. His presence is electrifying, and his smile works its magic all the way to the back row. His intensity will cause some sweaty palms in the audience.

Other standouts include Savannah Riddle as Ursula, the over-the-top fangirl friend of Kim’s, Kaeo Tiwanek-Finkes, who plays Mr. MacAfee without trying to do a Paul Lynde impression and still makes him funny,  14-year-old Molly O’Donnell, who doesn’t look a day over 28, camping her way through the role of Gloria Rasputin, and Lauren D’Ambrosio as Mrs. Mae Peterson, Albert’s mother, who brings down the house in the second act with her number (which was added to the show for the Broadway revival a few years ago) “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”

Irvington’s production boasts a strong ensemble, and they have an unusual plethora of talented boys to round out the cast. The girls hold their own, too, with lovely harmonies one moment and wild screams the next.  Director Di Lorenzo has wisely kept the screaming to the bare minimum.

The young directing team of Di Lorenzo, and husband and wife team of Jennifer and Chris Olson as vocal director and choreographer, respectively, have a lot to be proud of. They’ve breathed some freshness into a chestnut of a show that could easily become a parody of itself.  Along with musical director Charlie Rodda and his enormous, 30+ piece onstage orchestra (an innovative feat in itself) it’s possible to get excited about “Bye Bye Birdie” again. 

Bye Bye Birdie performs at Irvington High School’s Valhalla Theatre March 14, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, and 23. Thursday-Saturday curtain is at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2:00. Ticket prices range from $12-$20; all seats on Thursday evenings are $10. For more information, see www.irvingtondrama.com.

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