Three of the cast and crew members involved in the Good Company Players revival of "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum," which opens tonight, are making a bit of local theater history. The three were in the original 1973 production of "Forum" that kicked off the company's 40-year (and counting) run.
But only one was connected to the proceedings by an umbilical cord.
Lighting designer Steven Allen was actually inside his mother, Joanne, in the first part of the run of the show, which opened June 26, 1973, at the Hilton Hotel Ballroom in downtown Fresno. She played the small but memorable role of Fertilia, the pregnant courtesan.
That Good Company opted to have a real pregnant woman (nearing her ninth month!) play a role that is usually accomplished with strategically placed pillows is a testament to the full-ahead enthusiasm — or perhaps blissful naivete — of founding members eager for a good sight gag.
"We knew that the clock was ticking," recalls Dan Pessano, wincing slightly.
Joanne Allen agrees, remembering that at the time she didn't dwell much on the fact that she was so overwhelmingly pregnant.
"All I thought was, I get to go up on stage. I get to sing and dance," she says. "It was wonderful exercise."
Pessano, who played the leading role of the crafty slave Pseudolus in the 1973 show, reprises the role in tonight's production, which continues through March 16 at Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater.
The other veteran is director Fred Bologna, who was co-choreographer of the 1973 show and played one of the Proteans.
"Not bad for a lad in pre-school at the time," he quips.
This makes Bologna's third time directing and fourth time as choreographer. Pessano has played Pseudolus all six times in GCP's history.
The 2014 production has a few remnants of Bologna's original choreography remaining, but it's evolved.
"Each time that I have put 'Forum' on the stage, the choreography was reworked to match up with actors cast in the roles — and sometimes I just came up with a better way to do part of or the entire number," he says.
For Pessano, Pseudolus is one of his favorite all-time theater roles.
The line that gets him every time comes at the conclusion of Stephen Sondheim's memorable opening number "Comedy Night." Pseudolus turns to the audience and announces, "And now, the entire company."
Why is it an honor for Pessano to say those words? Because for him, theater is and always will be about the ensemble — a community that comes together, if only for a few hours each evening, to create its own special world.
The community spirit is what Joanne Allen remembers most fondly about that first "Forum" at the Hilton. Well, that and the fact that she had to drop out of the show's run to give birth. Her son arrived July 17, nearly three weeks before his original due date.
"I was just lucky my water didn't break up there on stage," she says.
Since childhood, Steve Allen has heard the story of his "first" show. As a member of a theatrical family, he went on to perform in GCP shows in childhood, but gravitated toward a career in the technical side of theater. After recently moving back to Fresno, he designed lights for the recent GCP production of "A Christmas Carol" and is now putting his expertise to use in "Forum."
After his mother had to abandon the role of Fertilia in the 1973 production, GCP turned to a pregnant stand-in: Marsha Frost. But she had to drop out, too, to give birth.
Finally, a third, non-pregnant cast member filled in for Fertilia in the final performances: Lindy Cope.
Pessano and Good Company weren't taking any more chances — instituting a requirement for the role that has held for more than four decades.
"She was with pillow," he says.
"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," through March 16, Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave. gcplayers.com, (559) 266-9494. $29-$50
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.