A funny Megan Cavanagh happened on the way to this Forum

Forum 2

(from left) Megan Cavanagh, Bob Greene, Michael Rhone and Rudy Guerrero don togas for the 42nd Street Moon production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Photo by www.davidallenstudio.com


Anybody’s enjoyment of the 1962 Stephen Sondheim/Burt Shevelove/Larry Gelbart musical farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum depends largely on the actor playing Pseudolus, the lie-spouting slave and comedy motor at the center of the show.

Zero Mostel originated the role – did anyone have a bigger comic motor than Zero? – Phil Silvers played it in 1972 and Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg took turns in the most recent Broadway revival in 1996. I’ve seen several productions of Forum and experienced what the Romans used to call Pseudolus annoyaolus, which is to say, the actors in the role were working so laboriously to be funny that I never laughed. It’s not surprising that Pseudolus breaks a sweat, but I really don’t want to.

The 42nd Street Moon production of Forum now at the Eureka Theatre is the first where I didn’t grow to dread the ever-expanding machinations of Pseudolus, who never met a lie he couldn’t enlarge. The reason is simple: Megan Cavanagh. She’s doing a little gender bending to play the scheming slave, and she’s marvelous. The old vaudevillian aspect of the role doesn’t escape her, nor does she belabor it. She’s a natural comic, so she doesn’t have to force the laughs. And she’s absolutely charming. She has grace where other Psuedolii have goals. She makes you laugh while they want to make you laugh.

To paraphrase Dinah Washington, what a difference a dame makes.

In this new era of 42nd Street Moon shows that are not staged concerts and not elaborate productions, the key to a successful production is a performer on which to hang the show, and in this case, it’s Cavanagh. Other cast members offer pleasures, and the show itself, though never my favorite Sondheim, has its fair share of laughs and musical delights. Any show that contains “Comedy Tonight” is going to be assured of at least one legendary show tune.

Director Greg MacKellan knows exactly how the show should go, and though he’s somewhat limited for space on the Eureka stage –farce requires a certain amount of running room – he and choreographer Tom Segal manage plenty of lively action. Some of Segal’s dance moves are especially funny in an acrobatic cartoon kind of way.

Cavanagh shines in her every scene, and she gets some spirited assists from Rob Hatzenbeller as Miles Gloriosus, a vain soldier whose charm doesn’t extend beyond his own face reflected in his breast plate, and Michael Rhone as Hysterium, whose ironically titled “I’m Calm” is amusing.

The Forum second act, though long on farcical chases, complications and resolutions, is lacking great musical moments, save for reprises of “Lovely” and “Comedy Tonight.” But it’s a nice touch that the short re-cap at the top of the act is underscored by “Love Is in the Air,” the original opening number that was ever so wisely replaced out of town by the show-defining “Comedy Tonight.” Kudos to musical director/pianist Dave Dobrusky and reeds player Nick Di Scala. They sound great and they’re lovely in togas.


42nd Street Moon’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues through Oct. 24 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$44. Call 415 255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org for information.


Here’s Ruthie Henshall and Carol Burnett singing “Lovely” from Forum (the clip is from the 1999 Broadway Sondheim revue Putting It Together).

And here’s Burnett with Bronson Pinchot putting a twist on “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” also from Forum (and also from Putting It Together).


Theater review: `High Spirits’

Spirits are blithe in Moon’s `High Spirits’
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What’s the point of reviewing a show just a few days before it closes? Not much from a commercial point of view.

But given the sudden interest in all things Noel Coward, I had to check out 42nd Street Moon’s production of High Spirits, a 1964 musical based on Coward’s play Blithe Spirit. And I’m certainly glad I did – the show turned out to be one of Moon’s can’t-miss productions.

The show itself, with music, lyrics and book by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray, has some snappy (and forgettable) tunes and adheres closely to Coward’s original blueprint. But what makes this musical event stand or fall is its core quartet of actors.

If you happen to be in New York these days, you can pop in on the revival of Blithe Spirit and see Rupert Everett, Jayne Atkinson, Christine Ebersole and the redoubtable Angela Lansbury in the roles, and lucky you. But it’s hard to imagine that starry foursome being funnier or more charming than the 42nd Street Moon crew.

Michael Patrick Gaffney (above, photo by Robert Millard) is Charles Condomine, a writer and widower working on a new book that involves a séance. To assure accuracy, he invites a medium named Madame Aracati to his home for an evening’s ghostly entertainment. On Broadway, Lansbury is said to be divine in the role, but 42nd Street Moon has a real secret weapon here: Megan Cavanagh, in her second Moon outing. Cavanagh is a seasoned comic who knows better than to simply put on a kooky show as the bicycle-riding spiritualist.

Cavanagh is hilarious and heartfelt. Her big numbers, “The Bicycle Song” (cleverly choreographed by Tom Segal), “Go Into Your Trance” and “Talking to You” (an ode to a Ouija board) and “Something Is Coming to Tea,” are all show highlights simply because Cavanagh’s Arcati is so much fun to watch. We don’t believe for a minute that Arcati, as eccentric as she is, could be a phony. She’s much too sincere and has too much belief in her own gifts.

That’s a key to making sense of the silly plot. During the séance, much to the dismay of Charles’ second wife, Ruth (a droll Maureen McVerry, funny in a starched British way, pictured above with Gaffney), Arcati conjures the fleshy ghost of Charles’ first wife, the dashing Elvira, played with pizzazz by Dyan McBride.

These four performers, under the loving direction of Greg MacKellan are a joy. They have chemistry together; they sing, dance and act effortlessly; and they seem genuinely to be enjoying their time on stage.

McBride gets the show’s two standout numbers – “You’d Better Love Me” and “Home Sweet Heaven” – and she swirls around the stage in a lovely, flowy blue dress (Louise Jarmilowicz gets credit for the costumes). She even infuses a less interesting song, “Faster Than Sound,” with style and humor.

Musical director Dave Dobrusky lets the feel of the early ’60s strike a groove in his playing, and he gets stalwart support from Nick DiScala on saxophone, clarinet and flute. With only two players, Dobrusky and DiScala manage to provide varied and pleasant arrangements that go a long way in selling the songs.

In recent shows, 42nd Street Moon, now in its 16th year, has evolved from straightforward concert productions, with actors holding their scripts, to more fully staged, though still minimalist, presentations. The great thing is that the transition seems to be working. These aren’t big, splashy set- and costume-heavy shows, but the strengths of the shows themselves shine through and provide a showcase for some of our talented local musical theater performers.

Something to look forward to: The just-announced 2009-10 42nd Street Moon season begins in September with Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam starring New York cabaret star Klea Blackhurst. Harold Rome and Leonard Gershe’s musical western, Destry Rides Again, will star local light Connie Champagne and run Oct. 28-Nov. 15. Cole Porter’s Jubilee returns Nov. 25-Dec. 13 starring High Spirits cohorts Megan Cavanagh and Michael Patrick Gaffney. The Gershwins’ Lady, Be Good! Runs March 31-April 25 and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Very Warm for May runs, appropriately, May 6-24.

The new season kicks of the beginning of a multi-year celebration of composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Ira Gershwin. The new season will also introduce “salon evenings” honoring lyricists Dorothy Fields (Oct. 13) and Ira Gershwin (Jan. 28).

For information visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

Megan Cavanagh is into `Out of This World’

Actor Megan Cavanagh has the kind of living arrangement you might see on a TV sitcom – in fact, you should see it on a TV sitcom. Every time she tells someone about her house and her family, someone inevitably says, “You should totally write a show about that!”

Here’s the deal: Cavanagh was married, as she puts it, “many moons ago,” and she and her now ex-husband have a son who’s in high school. The ex-husband remarried and had a daughter who adores her older brother (and vice-versa). So when the ex and his wife moved from Los Angeles to Palo Alto, it seemed only right that Cavanagh, now a lesbian, and her partner pull up stakes and head north as well. Brother and half-sister get to finish growing up together, and the exes and their new mates happily allow that to happen.

But wait, there’s more! Cavanagh and her partner live next door to the ex, the new wife and the little sister. And the son’s bedroom connects TO BOTH APARTMENTS! Mom on one side, dad on the other. Cue the laugh track and run the closing credits music.

“The arrangement poses its challenges,” Cavanagh says, “but it’s actually pretty great. We love my son’s little sister – we’re her aunties. We babysit and give her music lessons, and that fulfills a baby fix in me. The best part is my son gets to grow up with his sister.”

Megan Cavanagh (right) sings with Darlene Popovic in 42nd Street Moon’s revival of Out of This World, a 1950 musical by Cole Porter. Photo by David Allen

So how about writing the TV show inspired by real life?

“I’m actually more interested in a reality show,” Cavanagh says. “You could call it `Getting Along,’ and it could follow couples after a divorce. There’s so much horrible news out there. You never really hear the good stuff, about couples who loved each other once, aren’t together anymore but decide to be mature for their kids.”

Cavanagh is one of this busy workman actors whose name you might not know but whose face – and voice – ring a bell. Cavanagh is on Logo’s lesbian sitcom “Exes and Ohs,” which she describes as a gay cross between “Sex and the City” and “Friends.” She plays Cris, who, along with partner of 10 years, Kris, operates an online pet supply business out of Seattle (the show is filmed in Vancouver). “They call it a dramedy, but it’s really more comedy than drama,” Cavanagh says. “Everything I do is comedy. I celebrated my 40th birthday in the first season – they’re so kind – but that was filmed two years ago. We’re going to film the second season, but it’s like, hello people, I’m aging. How long can I pretend to be 40? They’re writing scripts madly now, and we’ll likely film this fall.”

Though she has lived in the Bay Area for a couple years, Cavanagh still commutes to LA to do voiceover work for Nickelodeon cartoons. Most notably, she’s the voice of Jimmy Neutron’s mom. Among the other voices she provides for the network is a new show set in San Francisco in which she plays mother to kids voiced by Amy Poehler and Andy Richter. “I’m a total San Francisco mom,” she says. “I have dreds, a tattoo and drive a Harley. I booked that job right as I decided to move up here. I thought it was God’s way of saying, `Go for it!’ ”

TV and film have been good to Cavanagh (remember her as Broomhilde in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights or as Marla, the homesick ballplayer in A League of Their Own?), but the actor claims that theater is her first love. But when the TV and movie gigs keep coming along, it’s hard to commit to a stage job. After a long stretch of work in LA, Cavanagh suddenly realized it had been almost a decade since her last play. “I was flabbergasted with myself,” she says. “So I went back to Door County, Wis., where I had interned in college at the oldest resident summer stock company in the U.S. They were doing Sylvia, and I played the therapist you’re not sure if it’s a man or a woman. I had a panic attack backstage and worried that I couldn’t do a whole scene without starting or stopping like they do in TV. I was about to make my entrance. I was sweating profusely. I gave myself a good talking to, pushed myself onstage and did it – shakily. I vowed never to let so much time go by again without doing a play.”

So, these last few years, while she’s been doing the TV thing, she has also been going in and out of various productions of Menopause: The Musical (one of her stints included the Pier 39 production in San Francisco). And now she has her first post-Menopause gig: with 42nd Street Moon’s revival of Out of This World, the 1950 Cole Porter musical about Greek gods and Hollywood’s upper crust comically colliding.

The musical (in previews June 5 and 6 with opening on June 7) entered Cavanagh’s life shortly after she dove into the Theatre Bay Area general auditions. “I hadn’t done an audition since the ’80s,” Cavanagh says. “I dusted off a monologue from college that was totally not right for my age – Viola in Twelfth Night. And I sang both parts of `Bosom Buddies’ from Mame. I had been home 15 minutes when 42nd Street Moon called.”

In the show, Cavanagh plays the Hedda Hopper-like gossip columnist Isadora St. John. “I’m modeling her on Eve Arden,” Cavanagh says. “She’s a hoot – an opportunist always on the lookout for a scoop. She’ll go with a guy or a girl, whatever’s working in the moment. I get two duets with (Bay Area actor) Darlene Popovic, and we are having so much fun. There’s one number, `I Sleep Easier Now,’ that just kicks butt. We’re drinking through it.”

Cavanagh says she’s anxious for more Bay Area stage work – mostly of the comic variety – though she’s willing to shake it up. “I did the audition to face my fear, and I’m ready to go. I’d do anything that comes along.”

Out of This World continues through June 29 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$38. Call 415-225-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org for information.