Avi Hoffman's My Daddy

Avi Hoffman's New Vista Theatre is a theater company started by Avi Hoffman, and its very first production is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, currently being performed in the future Avi Hoffman Commemorative Theater, starring Avi Hoffman as all characters and directed by Avi Hoffman. Of course, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was written by Avi Hoffman under his pen name "Stephen Sondheim," because Avi Hoffman is nothing if not modest, and I'm sure he's mad as hell that I'm letting that particular cat out of that particular bag. And that makes me nervous, for the Wrath of Avi is nothing to fuck with, for 'twas Avi that first sculpted the Earth from molten greasepaint and set the stars ablazing in the firmament. Also, my mum claims he's my father.

I don't believe her, but so what? You can never tell with these theater types, and Avi's always looked a bit roguish. But enough of that. We're talking about Avi Hoffman's new vanity project, which would be beyond reprehensible if Avi weren't doing such a fantazamazz job of pretty much everything.

All right, we jest. It's not just about Hoffman, and there's a good chance that New Vista Theatre isn't a vanity project at all. Starting a theater company committed to doing outsized, old-school entertainment can't be easy — I've never tried it myself, but you've gotta figure that you're banking on an awful lot of people who've already got season's subscriptions to Caldwell and Florida Stage and whatnot coughing up another few bagfuls of dollars to get all haberdashered for another year's worth of Saturday nights. And how much theater does a theatergoer need?

Well, not much more than Hoffman center stage (and he'll star in all of New Vista's shows this season). It's not like any would-be Forum star could top Hoffman — one of South Florida's most superlative-worthy actors as well as the company's producing artistic director — barring the sudden resurrection of Zero Mostel. Hoffman's one of the busiest actors you'll find in this corner of the world, and I'm not talking about his bookings. See, Forum's Pseudolus is a mischievous little character; there's never a moment when he's not singing, lying, or scheming, and Hoffman can do all three at the same time while remaining both funny and cute. Can you do that? I certainly can't. Hoffman never even breaks a sweat.

True enough, Forum isn't a one-man show. It's a many-man show, and you're a bloodless beast if you can't find space in your heart for most of the folks Hoffman and company have here assembled. It's a lovable bunch, though there are times when you wonder if it's the actors or the strength of their material that makes New Vista's inaugural production so much fun.

There's a good chance that you already know Forum, but we're anal about these things, so here's the synopsis: The year is approximately 200 B.C., and poor Pseudolus is a slave pining for freedom. He's owned by Senex (Gary Marachek), a sexually frustrated and basically dumb old feller who's utterly dominated by his wife, the aptly named Domina (Maribeth Graham). While they're off to visit Domina's mum, their son (Hero, played by Daniel Gomez) reveals to Pseudolus that he's in love with a young lady who lives at the brothel across the street (Philia, played by Garie Jean Williams). Sadly, she's betrothed to a great big ogre of a soldier named Miles Gloriosus (Michael Dionissiou), who's likely to disembowel anyone dumb enough to lay a finger on his bride-to-be. Pseudolus promises to rectify the situation in exchange for his freedom, and much hilarity ensues.

When Sondheim composed Forum's music in 1961, he'd already figured out the complex lyrical syncopations and contortions that would come to define his oeuvre. They're all in place here, and the cast can roll with them as well as anybody. (No mean feat — try wrapping your head around lyrics like "the bong of the bell of the buoy in the bay/And the boy and the bride and the boat are away!" Stephen Sondheim doesn't need timpani; he's got explosives.) The voices themselves are a bit uneven. While Dionissiou's basso profundo voice could flatten buildings and Gomez has a lovely light tenor, Williams' sudden leaps into the upper register can get jarring, warp-speeding us as they do from Tin Pan Alley to opera buffa.

But it doesn't matter — Williams is a fine actress who plays the virgin courtesan just as daft 'n' lovely as can be — and all other potential gripes are similarly superficial. Yeah, the P.A.'s a bit tinny, and the orchestra's brass can tend toward the murky. Do you care? Are you some sort of snob? Are there other theaters in town with decent live orchestras? The important thing here is whether the people at New Vista Theatre can make this old warhorse come alive and kick some yuks out of folks who've already seen it a time or three, probably in bigger venues, probably with bigger production budgets and better-known actors. My contention is that they can and they do, the odd vocal or technical quibble aside.

You've probably figured it out: I was lying to you earlier. A lot of people put this show together, not just Avi. Michael Larsen's the director here, and he's clearly the right man for the job. His direction is a near-perfect graft on the old music, and he manages to keep 17 actors flowing smoothly through some viciously tricky blocking. Paula Villar's responsible for these costumes, and they're almost perfect, resembling what you'd expect a bunch of ridiculous people to traipse around in while singing the day away in classical antiquity. And scenic designer Ian T. Almeida has put together the biggest and most fully interactive set on any SoFla regional stage this season.

That should be the hook for this entire business: spectacle! The Golden Age Hits Boynton! It's a hard proposition to argue with. So long as New Vista keeps bringing these homegrown ostentations to our little ostentatiousness-deprived corner of the world, I don't mind if Avi Hoffman stars in every single one. In fact, I might prefer it.

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Brandon K. Thorp