It's a Funny Thing

Sitting in the shadows of Beltway 8, The Great Caruso Dinner Theater hunkers in the eastern corner of a renovated shopping strip. The parking lot, humming with shiny tour buses, is a vast expanse of blacktop. At the entrance, a heavy wooden revolving door shuffles patrons into a cowboy's wet dream of gold gilded walls, glistening crystal chandeliers and marble staircases. The dinner, which comes complete with salad and cheesecake, is served with enormous goblets of cheap wine as well as soft, warm white-bread rolls, thick stamps of butter and a big smile from the waiter, who's bound to be prompt and friendly.

The room practically glows with the combination of food, spirits and merry conversation; everyone seems charged with a kind of intense expectancy that no ordinary restaurant can offer. The high stage before us is set with three doors: one pink, one blue, one green; the busily masticating audience eyes them now and again, waiting to see who will come out of which door when. Of course, when eight o'clock finally arrives, a pack of singing actors bounds out from the back of the room (perhaps from the kitchen?) instead of from the stage wings. They wiggle their way to the front, past bent elbows and extended chair legs, crooning a rousing rendition of "Comedy Tonight," one of Stephen Sondheim's cheesiest and most familiar tunes: "Something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone, a comedy tonight!"

The well-worn but beloved A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sondheim, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's 1962 Tony-winning musical, is certainly not for everyone. Most been-there, done-that theatergoers wouldn't so much as sniff in the general direction of this old dog. But in the 1996 Broadway revival, Nathan Lane managed to breathe enough life into the raunchy little thing to win himself a Tony for best actor. (He was eventually replaced by, of all people, Whoopi Goldberg.) Randall Jobe, who stars in the Great Caruso version, finds his own wickedly funny way into the character of Pseudolus, a slick-talking slave from ancient Rome who bargains for his freedom and helps his young master find true love along the way.

Handsome young Hero (Luther Chakurian) is an overprotected 20-year-old whose only experiences with love are the furtive glances he casts toward the house next door, where the golden-tressed Philia (Leslie Johnson) lives. The fact that she's just one of a harem from the house of Lycus (Alex Feigelson), a local pimp who trades in exotic lovelies, doesn't dissuade Hero for a second. Besides, we know, even if he doesn't, that Philia is still a virgin. That she's been sold to a great general for the hefty price and is simply waiting for his arrival only leaves Hero that much more smitten. When his parents pack up for a weekend journey, Hero persuades his slave to help him get his girl. But Pseudolus is a sly bargainer who won't assist his master unless he gets his freedom in return.

This is the featherweight setup and conflict of a play that for some reason took its writers almost five years to complete. Inspired by the work of the early Roman playwright Plautus, the musical is filled with stock characters and predictable situations. There's even a line of dialogue lifted straight from Plautus.

Director Phillip Duggins hasn't added much to the formula, but then again, this is dinner theater. Still, there's something bizarrely familiar about watching these priggish actors strut through the motions of these old lascivious tunes. Take, for instance, "Everyone Ought to Have a Maid," which features four male characters who stand side by side singing, "Everybody ought to have a working girl / Everybody ought to have a lurking girl / To putter around the house…." If you can leave all feminist leanings at the door, the song is amusing, mostly because the actors embody a kind of old-fashioned naughty delight as they grind their pelvises and shake their bottoms.

Chakurian as Hero is as charming as ever. His dark good looks and gorgeous voice can make even this flat character compelling, which says something about this young actor's talent. Johnson as Philia (a thankless role if ever there was one) seems, above all, uncomfortable as the doe-eyed ditz whose only talent is her "loveliness." Freeman as Hysterium, the nervously screeching slave who wants nothing more than to serve, steals the stage with his wild, yelping energy.

Yet these actors are but a small piece of the whole Great Caruso experience. Just spin yourself through that revolving door to find a world that even the kitschiest downtown artist could only dream of reproducing.

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Lee Williams