Human slavery is right up there with the Holocaust and child leukemia when it comes to big laughs. Why, then, the stupendous success of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, one of theater's most frequently produced musicals? The play—a sexist, jingoistic paean to cheating that throws in a little gratuitous mockery of eunuchs—should produce picketers rather than sold-out houses.
You could argue that the show's politically incorrect excesses should be forgiven because it's a satire. But it's no satire. It's a farce that uses ridicule in the service of ridicule rather than to deflate or to make a point.
Nor is the play's source material derived from one of the great satirists of antiquity; its author was the Don Rickles of his day, the Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus, circa a couple of centuries before the current era. In the milieu of Forum, slaves are always slaves, whores are always whores, and pretty girls are always airheads.
No, there's only one valid explanation for Forum's continued success, one amply demonstrated by Saddleback Civic Light Opera's ongoing production: it's very funny. And that is one defense that never seems to rest.
It's funny not because the characters are slaves or sexist; it's funny because the people who created it knew from funny. The dialogue and jokes were written by two products of the fertile world of 1950s TV comedy writing: Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, the latter of whom would later create the finest TV comedy ever, M*A*S*H. Stephen Sondheim, the only legitimate musical genius Broadway has ever produced, wrote the music and lyrics. Sondheim would go on to write far more intricate, sophisticated music for the stage, but most of those shows bombed. In Forum he kept things relatively simple and was rewarded with his greatest commercial success.
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All in all, a rather impressive pedigree. But it doesn't mean much if the onstage talent can't match the script's manic energy and freewheeling spirit. This Sheryl Donchey-directed production gets enough of that right to make for an entertaining experience. While the physical comedy of this production seems a bit flaccid, Donchey hits the coarse, blue comedy right on its titillating T's and A's. The most notable example comes in the bawdy tune "The House of Marcus Lycus," in which a procession of six young, lithe—and if we may be so old-school—babelicious actresses slink, writhe, pelvic thrust and vamp their way through the number.
The key speaking role, of course, is Pseudolus (John Massey Jr.), the freedom-yearning slave who attempts to secure a newly arrived courtesan for his master, Hero (Robert Allen). The problem is that he has already been purchased by the military hero, Miles Gloriosus (a very effective Steve de Forest), who, when not admiring his own valor and beauty, charms everyone within earshot with his exploits of raping, pillaging and slaughtering.
Pseudolus is both narrator and protagonist, one of the best roles in the musical-theater canon. Massey is likable and cunning but needs more comic bits to lend his character a more vaudevillian air. One standout among the ensemble is Mindy Cowan's sweet-voiced Philia. She has a beautiful voice but deserves even more accolades for her ability to pull off the dumb blonde role by never once calling attention to herself. When people say comedy is funniest when played straight, this is what they mean.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Saddleback College's McKinney Theatre, 28000 Marguerite Pkwy., Mission Viejo, (949) 582-4656. Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Through Aug. 14. $20-$22.