Comedy tonight: “Funny Thing” in Brea, vintage Burnett and Skelton on DVD

Together again - Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett.
Together again – Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett.

It’s hard to believe the theatrical juggernaut that is “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” almost wasn’t. When the Burt Shevelove-Larry Gelbart-Stephen Sondheim show first previewed on Broadway, audiences weren’t laughing; producers hurridly added some visual jokes to the opening number to convince people it was a comedy.

If you haven’t seen the show lately—or somehow haven’t seen it—the Southgate production at Brea’s Curtis Theatre (running through Apr. 9) is definitely worth a visit. Director Jonathan Infante keeps the farcical goings-on moving like a well-oiled machine. Scott K. Ratner, who heads up the show as Pseudolus, the sly, conniving slave who runs riot through ancient Rome, makes the long evening consistently fun; his bag of tricks includes a few that didn’t occur to the original producers.

Brian J. Cook looks a little too youthful and virile to play the henpecked head of the household who employs Pseudolus; similarly, Erich Schroeder is a bit too mature to be entirely convincing as Hero, his inexperienced son, who falls hopelessly in the love with the girl next door. Both however deliver the goods in performing their roles.

The rest of the ensemble is a mixed bag. Floyd Riggle is miscast as Pseudolus’ sidekick, Hysterium. Daniel Berlin seems wrong as Lycus—but a gay man who procures courtesans for a living would have no conflicts of interest, so his atypical approach works. Megan Cherry (Domina), Garry Hobday (Erronius), Kiana King (Tintinabula), Allison Aoun (Protean) are just right in their parts. Jo Monteleone’s musical direction is on solid ground.

If you like your entertainment vintage, you might want to time your visit to coincide with the wonderful silent movie poster exhibit next door at the City of Brea Art Gallery (running through Apr. 14).

“Carol + 2” (available on DVD from Time Life) is a long “lost” 1966 Carol Burnett TV special that co-stars her idol, Lucille Ball, along with Zero Mostel—who of course originated the role of Pseudolus in “Funny Thing.” The writing is exceptional, so it’s no surprise the show was written and produced by Nat Hiken, the genius behind “The Phil Silvers Show.”

Burnett is outstanding, proving even before her long-running series the sitcom sketch format that gave her a chance to play different characters, and play them broadly, was her forte; she also gets to sing. Zero does one good sketch with Carol and sings his evergreen “If I Were a Rich Man,” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Lucy is in top form here, including the memorable finale which has her and Carol playing cleaning ladies at the William Morris Agency and singing “Chutzpah!” No mention is made of Mostel’s 1943 film debut at MGM, which co-starred Ball—a missed opportunity for a bit together. Burnett’s 1972 special, “Once Upon a Mattress,” is a bonus on the disc.

“The Red Skelton Hour in Color” (also on DVD from Time Life) collects 12 shows previously unreleased on DVD from the great comedian’s TV variety program. The shows, originally aired from 1966-1969, feature Skelton clowning with stars like as John Wayne, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney, Phyllis Diller and Tim Conway, with such musical guests as Simon & Garfunkel.

Red was funnier in live performance than on TV but the shows hold up well. The writing is uneven, however; “Skelton viewed his writers as adversaries,” according to one I interviewed, Bob Weiskopf, and they hated him. There are lots of political jokes on these programs that still resonate. Wayne shines here, and his genuine affection for Skelton (and vice versa) is obvious. Conway proves he needs good material, like he enjoyed on the Burnett show (which he didn’t get on his outing with Skelton).

Yuri Temirkanov & St. Petersburg Phil at SCFTA, “Orange” at South Coast Rep

Yuri Temirkanov (courtesy IMG Artists)
Yuri Temirkanov (courtesy IMG Artists)

A friend once gave me a ticket he couldn’t use to a concert at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. I thought it was a lousy seat—front row, far right—until I realized it afforded me a terrific view of the conductor, who was so impassioned he was giving the most compelling performance I’ve ever seen on the podium. His name was Yuri Temirkanov and I’ve been looking forward to his return ever since; thanks to the Philharmonic Society he’s back in Costa Mesa this week.

The maestro will lead the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra  Wednesday at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, marking the 50th anniversary of his debut with the orchestra (he’s been the Artistic Director and Chief Conductor since 1988). Temirkanov, renowned for his recordings of Tchaikovsky symphonies and Stravinsky ballets, conducts Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 on this occasion, with Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji joining the orchestra.

Selections from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2” round out the Mar. 15 program. A pre-concert lecture by KUSC’s Rich Capparela begins at 7 p.m. with the concert following at 8 p.m. The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine marches into SCFTA Mar. 22 with Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony.

South Coast Repertory commissions a lot of new work, bless them. Some of the results, like Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” produce more satisfactory results than others, such as Aditi Brennan Kapil’s new “Orange” (at SCR through Mar. 26). The latter comedy-drama, about a home-schooled 17-year-old Indian girl searching for identity and yearning for adventure on a visit to Orange County, is as wild a ride as “Vietgone,” with some unexpected twists and turns—and even Disneyland fireworks—but isn’t ready for prime time.

“Orange” scores points with some off-kilter observations but teems with jokes about OC that were stale 20 years ago; there’s a lot of talk about gods, demons and aliens that doesn’t quite jell. Michael B. Raiford’s amateurish set design (apparently suggested by the playwright) doesn’t help.

Nonetheless, Jessica Kubzansky does an outstanding job of directing a three-member cast that would otherwise be lost in space. Pia Shah (as Leela, the innocent teen adventurer) and Karthik Srinivasan (a variety of male characters) deliver fine performances, and Anjali Bhimani (as Leela’s uptight mother, her out-of-control cousin and others) is nothing short of amazing.



“Gent’s Guide to Murder” in Costa Mesa, Hershey Felder’s “Tchaikovsky” in Laguna Beach

Hershey Felder as “Tchaikovsky.”
Hershey Felder as “Tchaikovsky.”

You may recall the wonderful 1949 Alec Guinness movie, “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” where Sir Alec plays eight members of the ill-fated D’Ascoyne family who stand between an ambitious young man and a fortune. Whether you’ve seen it or not, you won’t want to miss the consistently clever “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” (at Segerstrom Center for the Arts through Mar. 5). It’s based on the Roy Horniman novel that begat the film, with book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak.

Kevin Massey is smooth and slippery as Monty, the devious young fellow who plots his way to wealth, and John Rapson is highly entertaining as the D’Ysquith family, especially the two females. But the most talented cast members are Kristen Beth Williams as Monty’s lover Sibella, and Kristen Hahn as Phoebe, to whom he finally gives his heart.

This is no average road company, by the way. Director Darko Tresnjak, who deservedly won a Tony for the Broadway production, has brought not only Massey and Hahn with him from New York but almost his entire team, including scenic designer Alexander Dodge and choreographer Peggy Hickey.

Hershey Felder has returned to Laguna Playhouse with “Our Great Tchaikovsky,” portraying the beloved Russian composer who gave us “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker.” I’ve seen a half dozen of Felder’s unique one-man-and-a-piano solo shows, and I can only say, I haven’t had enough. The show, now in previews, opens Mar. 5 and runs through Mar. 26 in Laguna Beach.

Felder, who has brought George Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt, Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin back to life, is also reprising his popular “Great American Song Book Sing-Along” in Laguna for three performances (Mar. 14-21). “Tchaikovsky” was written by Felder, who supplies the scenic design as well. The show is directed by Trevor Hay, who previously directed Felder as Liszt and Berlin.