Twenty-seven years ago, Ronald Reagan was in his second term aspresident, "Platoon" won the Best Picture Oscar, Stephen Sondheimwas trying out his latest musical, "Into the Woods," in San Diego,and Florida Atlantic University's Department of Theatre and Dancewas launching its "Festival Rep."
"The Rep" became an annual summer institution, which this year isfocusing on the works of Broadway composer-lyricist Sondheim withtwo of his shows, the book musical, "A Funny Thing Happened on theway to the Forum," and a revue of his early work, "Side by Side bySondheim."
As a test of the student talent pool, Sondheim's emotional subtextsand musical complexity are a worthy challenge. And while not all ofthem are up to the task, the entertainment quotient of these twoshows more than compensates.
Of the two shows, performed in rotation through July 21 along withKaufman and Hart's "The Man who Came to Dinner," the revue faresfar better. In part, that is because of the simplicity of theformat and, in part, because of the production's two Equity guestartists, Terry M. Cain and Wayne LeGette.
LeGette, a veteran of Sondheim concerts at the former CaldwellTheatre, demonstrates the requisite dry intensity on "Could I LeaveYou" and "Buddy's Blues." Cain shows the value of understatementwith the ballad, "I Remember," written for an original televisionmusical of the 1960s. Of the students, Abby Perkins is a standout,ably handling a pair of high-speed patter numbers ("Getting MarriedToday" and "Another Hundred People," both from "Company"), andMichael Empson finesses his way through the playlet "Barcelona."
The group and director Richard Gamble are less successful with"Forum," a genuinely funny musical farce based on the comedies ofPlautus that needs precise timing and machine-like delivery to earnits laughs. The show captures a day in the life of Roman slavePseudolus, a conniver obsessed with gaining his freedom, a processthat involves young lovers, the neighboring procurer, his stable ofworking girls, a preening warrior, a couple of high- pitched eunuchsand the occasional pirate.
Cain's Pseudolus often gets lost in the crowd. Understandably,perhaps, the student performers seem at a loss capturing thevarious vaudeville types that the show is built upon. Sure-firecomic songs like "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," "I'm Calm" and"That Dirty Old Man" earn only smiles and the final chase scenelacks crispness.
Despite it all, "Forum" remains an amusing confection, it just doesnot rise to the level of zaniness it should here. There seems to besome talent among the FAU students, but they are not served well bythe demands of Sondheim.
SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM and A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TOTHE FORUM
Where: Festival Rep 2013, Florida Atlantic University, UniversityTheatre, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton.
When: In rotating repertory, through July 21.
Tickets: $12-$20. Call: 800-564-9539.
The verdict: A pair of Sondheim musicals showcasing the studentperformers, with uneven results.
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