Theater & Dance
"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"

By: Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Produced by: Hillbarn Theatre
Featuring: Dan Demers, Russell Ward, Tracy Chiappone, David Blackburn, Raymond Mendonca, Ron Lopez, Gery Giurbino, Russ Bohard, Paige Collazo, Meena Shayesteh, Christine Baker, Amanda Ross, Allison Zenke, Brigette Losey, Ali Marie Gangi, Noah Bender, Brad Satterwhite and Jon Schneider
Directed by: Dan Demers and Jim Ambler
Choreographed by: Jim Ambler
Music direction by: Matthew Mattei
Running time: 120 minutes, one intermission
When: August 27 through September 20, 2015
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City, California
Tickets: $25-$48; call 1-650-349-6411, extension 2, or visit

Blackburn, Demers
Mark and Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
David Blackburn as Hero, left, and Dan Demers as Pseudolus are both hilarious in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City, August 27 through September 20, 2015.
Get thee to the 'Forum'!
Hillbarn Theatre breathes new life
and a mountain of hilarity into musical
September 2, 2015

We hereby nominate Dan Demers for a Hero of the American Musical Theatre Award, undaunted by the fact that, as far as we can tell, no such award exists.

Demers deserves such an honor for turning an musical that often gets mediocre treatment, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," into a completely entertaining and delightful two hours in the theater, in the production on stage at the Hillbarn Theatre through September 20, 2015.

Demers's triumph begins with the opening song, "Comedy Tonight," which — despite Stephen Sondeim's clever wordplay — is usually moribund, dead fish in a wrapper, a dull few minutes to suffer through.

But Demers adds a couple of over-the-top bits to it (which we will not reveal here) that immediately make it about one thousand times more fun than usual, and put us all in the mood for the endless flow of goofiness to come in this fast-paced, handsomely constructed and cast production.

Demers — who is artistic director at Hillbarn and also co-directed this show, with Jim Ambler — plays Pseudolus, slave of Hero, who promises him his freedom if Pseudolus can hook him up with the courtesan Philia.

David Blackburn, recently migrated here from Michigan, is hilarious as Hero, swishing on stage in his short skirt with his long legs and high tenor voice, giddy with childlike lust for the lovely Philia.

This is Blackburn's debut with Hillbarn, and he is a find.

Philia is played with enthusiastic idiocy by Ali Marie Gangi. As she sings, "I am a courtesan and a courtesan has but one talent. I'm lovely, all I am is lovely. Lovely is the one thing I can do. Winsome, what I am is winsome, radiant as in some dream come true. Oh, isn't it a shame? I can neither sew nor cook nor read or write my name."

But, happily, Hero, who often raises his short skirt, perhaps to air the family jewels, doesn't need sewing or cooking or a literate mate.

Complications ensue.

Philia is the property of Marcus Lycus, played by Russ Bohard with his usual mastery of comic delivery and with his mellifluous, deep voice. And Lycus has already promised Philia to the Roman general Miles Gloriosus, played with macho intensity and a rich voice by Gary Giurbino.

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This is Giurbino's debut with Hillbarn — his coming back to the stage after 25 years away, working a job that required a lot of travel. Now he's in a gig that lets him stay in the area, which is very good news for Bay Area theater lovers.

Pseudolus has to somehow get Hero and Philia together before General Gloriosus arrives.

Complicating matters is the senile but horny Senex, Hero's father, played with his usual conviction and hilarity by Hillbarn stalwart Russell Ward, who also wants Philia, once he catches sight of her.

Mark and Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
The great Tracy Chiappone is plenty scary when she needs to be as Domina in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

Senex is, in effect, on the run from his harridan wife Domina, played by the matchless Tracy Chiappone, with her large bosom (which plays a key role in this play) and even bigger voice. When she sings "That Dirty Old Man" in the second act, the Hillbarn doors bulged outward. Chiappone, who did six years with Beach Blanket Babylon, is a force of nature, much like a hurricane, except with a far more pleasing voice.

Raymond Mendonca is on hand as Senex' chief slave, Hysterium, who is, in fact, hysterical about the danger he is in as Pseudolus' wacky scheme continues. Mendonca brings plenty of humor to the role, and takes part in the Act II craziness when there seem to be three Philia's running around, with Senex desperate to have sex with at least one of them.

Christine Baker, Paige Collazo, Brigette Losey, Amanda Ross, Meena Shayesteh and Alison Zenke are all highly decorative and funny in different ways as courtesans. Noah Boger, Brad Satterwhite and Jon Schneider switch into and out of roles as Gloriosus' protean guards and as Lycus' eunuchs. They're fun.

Ron Lopez as Erronius gives a master course in how to milk a role for everything and steal the scene from everybody as Erronius, the old, old man who is looking for his children, who had been stolen by pirates, years ago. He must walk a long circuit around the Seven Hills of Rome (where this takes place, 200 years before Christ), which means a few times walking across the stage, waggling his gigantic, semaphoric white eyebrows and mugging for the audience. He has a beautiful, deep, mellifluous voice, and it is a pleasure to hear his few bits of dialogue.

Kuo-Hao Lo's three-house set is colorful and makes for plenty of doors opening and closing as the hysteria and the chases build to a goofy level. The painted flagstones of the Roman street are fabulous. Don Coluzzi's lighting had a few come-and-go problems on opening night. Also partly troublesome was the sound, designed by Alan Chang, when Gloriosus' microphone was not working in the first act, as he was singing "Bring Me My Bride." And, sometimes the recorded music tracks were louder than the sung voices.

Speaking of the tracks, whoever was running them — probably Music Director Matthew Mattei — did a fine job, including with the surprise gags during the opening number. And no, tracks don't just start at the beginning of the show and run through. They are conducted in response to actor cues, just like with a live band.

Costumes by Mae Matos are excellent; here are slaves, in blue, here are free men, in gold and brown, here are soldiers, with lots of leather, and here are courtesans, with lots of sex appeal in different ways.

This show moves with considerable, goofy speed. A fine couple of hours in the theater.

Email John Orr at

Chiappone, Mendonca
Mark and Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
Tracy Chiappone as Domina takes Ray Mendonca as Hysterium to heart in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City, August 27 through September 20, 2015.
Bohard, Mendonca, Demers, Ward
Mark and Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
Russ Bohard as Marcus Lycus, Raymond Mendonca as Hysterium, Dan Demers as Pseudolus and Russell Ward as Senex, from left, in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City, August 27 through September 20, 2015.
Blackburn, Demers, Gangi
Mark and Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
David Blackburn as Hero, Dan Demers as Pseudolus and Alie Marie Gangi as Philia, from left, in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City, August 27 through September 20, 2015.