Playhouse winds down season with "Forum"; FUNNY business

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The Youngstown Playhouse will segue into summer on a lighter note with “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

The Stephen Sondheim-penned comedy-musical will be the final main stage show of the season. It’s being directed by Dennis Henneman – the first show he’s helmed at the South Side community theater – and stars John Cox as Pseudolus.

Paul Dahman, Zach Bernat, Reece Bordonaro and Johnny George play Pseudolus’ crazy cohorts.

Cox is a fixture on Valley stages, but rarely does musicals. The last time, in fact, was a 2005 Playhouse production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown,” in which he played Snoopy.

What is it about “Forum” that got him to stray from his comfort zone?

“I’m not a musical person, but I was told this is a show for actors who can sing, not singers who can act,” said Cox. “It’s how Sondheim writes.”

David Jendre, who knows a thing or two about musicals (and is also in the show), talked Cox into the role.

“[Jendre] said the role is for someone who is comfortable talking to the audience, has good timing and isn’t afraid to be a jackass,” said Cox, whose last role was as Oscar in the Playhouse’s production of the Neil Simon comedy “The Odd Couple.”

Cox didn’t need much persuading to get on board “Forum.”

“It has great music, great tunes and it’s just silly,” he said. “And when I saw that Larry Gelbart was one of the writers of the book, I had to read it.” Gelbart was a writer for the great TV sitcom “MASH” and worked as a writer, along with Simon, for Sid Caesar.

A pediatrician now, Cox did a lot of stand-up comedy while he was in medical school. “I love comedy,” he said. “For years, I wanted to be a stand-up comedian.”

His father urged him – in no uncertain terms – to stick with medicine, said Cox, with a laugh.

In addition to Cox and Jendre, the cast of “Forum” also features Valley favorites Chris Fidram, David El’Hatton and Alan McCreary, with support by Miranda Canacci, Jenna Cintavey and Danielle Seidita.

Making their Youngstown Playhouse debuts are Cheyenne Carr, Cara DeChurch, Lexi Denney, Anna Maria Jadue, Daniel Navabi and Brenda Zyvith.

Joanna Andrei and Lori George choreographed the production. Nancy Wolfgang serves as musical director and will conduct the orchestra. Susi Thompson is the production stage manager.

Leslie Brown and John Pecano designed the set, with original costumes provided by Ellie DiCiero.

Henneman, who is a professor emeritus of theater and dance at Youngstown State University, called the cast an interesting mix of experienced actors and newbies.

“They’re really beginning to gel as a family, with the younger ones learning from the older actors, as it ought to be,” said Henneman.

“Forum” has been a staple for many years, and one reason, according to the director, is the score.

“Sondheim’s music is different from other composers, but this one is more accessible to the average audience,” said Henneman.

The production comes at a time when the Youngstown Playhouse is undergoing a transition in the executive director position. Bernie Appugliese will be stepping down as operations manager in June, and will be replaced by James McClellan.

Appugliese was a tireless promoter of the theater, who steered it to new heights during his two years at the helm. For that, the cast of “Forum” plans to pay tribute to him at some point during the musical’s run.

“[Appugliese] has been magnificent in changing the culture here, getting the quality back up and getting the community back into the Playhouse,” said Cox. “And the money he has been able to raise has been unprecedented. We want to pay tribute to him, send him off in the right way.”