Tonawanda News — The Niagara Regional Theatre Guild hit the ground running — and stumbling, and cowering, and skulking — into its 2013-14 season, opening its five-show schedule with the comedic farce, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."
The show, which opened Friday, continues through Oct. 13 at the guild's Ellicott Creek Playhouse at the St. Edmund Campus, Town of Tonawanda. Fran Newton, the artistic director of the group and technical director for this show, said it's the third time the group has presented this particular production, with the first going back to the 1970s.
"We decided to do something very upbeat for the start, and you can't get much funnier than this one," he said. "It was written back in the era when you had schtick comedy going like crazy. This is all schtick. One thing after the other, it's all farcical and very fast-paced á la the Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello."
The show, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, centers around Roman slave Pseudolus and his quest for freedom, involving the girl he's trying to win for his master, that young master's parents, the flock of courtesans at the house next door, the purveyor of said courtesans, the army captain to whom the purveyor has promised the first girl and ... well, it just continues from there.
"There are subplots all over the place," Newton said. "It's just an evening of laughs and entertainment. The entire show is all subplots."
When casting a show of this sort, with the story all over the place, the humor of the farcial sort and the action nearly constant, a sense of both physical comedy and of comedic timing is essential, he said, citing Dan Zerpa of Buffalo, who plays Pseudolus, as a prime example.
"He's a funny guy to start with ... but you get him on stage and he's a big guy, 6-foot-five or so," Newton said. "But he's a very agile guy and does the physical side of it very well. He has to be cowed by people, but he stands head and shoulders above everyone else in the cast.
"You have to have guys or girls who have a good sense of comic timing. A lot of these jokes are one-liners. If you can't deliver those jokes with the right timing, it's not going to work well. That's what we look for. You don't even have to be the best singer; (the audience is) paying more attention to the lyrics because they're so funny. Fortunately, we have both."
Zerpa, for his part, said that the basic nature of the role comes easily to him.
"It's not that far from who I really am," he said. "(Pseudolus is) always very fun, energetic, but has a wily nature to him. He's always confusing people with the patter and I'm something like that too."
As far as the timing, it's just a matter of keeping up with it and making sure lines are delivered with the right inflection, Zerpa said. "It's like an old Abbott and Costello scene, like 'Who's on First.' Where they just go, go, go and then pause for the audience, which starts laughing because they just sort of caught up with what's going on.
"The show itself is a laugh and a half. It just sort of takes off ... and partway through the show, you can't speak just because of the laughter. At least, I hope it gets to that point, because there's some really hilarious material. And we put our own twists on everything. We're having fun."
Cassandra Grizanti of the Town of Tonawanda plays Philia, the young woman whom Pseudolus is attempting to help his master, Hero, win. It's a different sort of role than the other, more physically comedic, parts, she said — in part because Philia is, well, somewhat clueless.
"A lot of people have a lot of physical humor. My character is kind of the calm one in the storm," she said. "But sometimes it's like she's so stupid the audience actually has to stop to think about what she's saying. ... You have to figure out how to say these lines to make them funny.
"Sometimes you have to shake your head at Philia because you're trying to figure out what the heck she's doing."
The quirks and challenges of her character aside, Grizanti said, the show is a one with a very broad appeal. "(There's) a really sweet love story ... and there's humor for everyone, there's highbrow humor and scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel humor."
That overarching sense of humor, Newton said, is what make the show such a joy for the actors and actresses of the theater guild.
"This one is for us ... the cast enjoys it probably even more than the audience," he said. "You just get to go out there and entertain. We have done some technically difficult shows, but here, what you think is just 'I have to go out and make these people laugh.' And that is an actor's dream.
"This is a show you just can't wait to get here and get up there and make people laugh."
The show also features Amberly Panepinto as Domina, John Panepinto as Hysterium, Michael Breen as Erronius, Kim Ehrenburg as Gymnasia, Bob Maxierski as Senex, Joe Fratello as Hero, Andrew Polino as Lycus, Samina Raza as Tintinabula, Jillian Sternberg as Twins, Maria Crisafulli as The Geminae, Sarah Mullin as Vibrata and Ron Obringer, Tom Romans, Jacob Badding and Bob Brady as The Proteans.
The rest of the season — the group's 91st — will feature "Little Women" (the musical) from Nov. 8 to 24, "The Lion in Winter" from Feb. 21 to March 9, "Damn Yankees" from March 28 to April 13 and "You Can't Take It With You" from May 2 to 18. For more information, call 284-6358 or visit www.niagaratheatre.com.IF YOU GO • WHAT: "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," presented by the Niagara Regional Theatre Guild • WHEN: 3 p.m. today, Oct. 6 and 13; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Oct. 11 and 12 • WHERE: Ellicott Creek Playhouse, St. Edmund Campus, 530 Ellicott Creek Road, Town of Tonawanda • TICKETS: $15 presale; at the door, general admission is $18, seniors/students with ID are $16 and children 16 and under are $10 • FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call 260-2319 or visit www.niagaratheatre.com.