STAGEStheatre's Rendition of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum Entertains as the Classic Should
They may not have played football in ancient Rome, but there's an unintentional similarity between the beginning of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum and that curb-stomping NFL Super Bowl on Feb. 2. Just as that snap that sailed over a befuddled Peyton Manning's head on the first play from scrimmage signified a harbinger of doom for the Denver Broncos, the first song in the musical, "Comedy Tonight," ecstatically proclaims there will be nothing noble, grim, formal or portentous about the play. Instead of kings and crowns, there will be liars, fakes and clowns.
It's strictly a comedy, nothing more. Sure, women are ridiculed, scorned or objectified. Most of the characters are slaves. Rich people are corrupt asses. But the frenetic, freewheeling heart of Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's (who was only a co-creator of a forgettable TV show called M*A*S*H) story and Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics excuses all stereotypes and excesses. It has been a crowd-pleaser since its Broadway debut in 1962, and while the stick-up-its-butt crowd would probably make mounting a show that traffics in such decidedly non-PC fare very difficult today, it's a chestnut of mid-20th century comedy and, when done right, a gas.
And this Robert Tully-directed show at STAGEStheatre gets it very, very right. The use of a recorded soundtrack is a bit deflating, but with so many people running around onstage, the only way a musical ensemble large enough to pull off Sondheim's score could work in this space would be if it were composed of pygmies. But while the music lacks the spontaneity and organic feel of live performance, the voices and, most important, the acting of Tully's cast are, for the most part, pitch-perfect.
Every production of Forum lives or dies based on the actor playing Pseudolous, the narrator, ring master and main character. He's a thief and a liar, but he has to be eminently likeable even if he's hawking quite-unlikeable fare. Mike Martin nails all that. His timing is impeccable, his choices bold, and he's able to not only drive the play, but also serve as an inspiring janitor, deftly cleaning up and commenting on any mistakes, planned or otherwise, that occur.
As a slave desperately trying to earn his freedom by securing his master's true love, Pseudolous' main foil is Hysterium, the master slave of the household. The two butt heads and conspire with each other, often yielding disastrous results. Maybe it's being paired with such a dynamic actor as Martin, but Glenn Freeze's Hysterium seems to lack the right blend of energy and machination. He's terrific in the play's climactic scene, when he's dressed as an apparently dead virgin, but up to that point, he seems to merely react to the chaos onstage, rather than being one of the two centrifuges whipping up the frenzy.
While true to the spirit of the original, Tully and his cast have a lot of fun souping up the 52-year-old play, from improvising small bits, such as taking selfies, to a sexed-up scene in a brothel, which is more raunchy strip club than luxuriant indulgence. Our ladies of ill repute (Anisa Diaz, Bonnie King, Bryana Pickford and Sabrina Zellars) possess stellar pole skills, as well as rich comedic timing, and Michael Keeney does such engrossing work as their anxiety-riddled and decadent boss, Marcus Lycus, that you wish he had more time onstage.
The rest of the ensemble rarely misses a beat. Of particular note: Patti Cumby does the most she can with very limited time as the mistress of the main household, and Toper Mauerhan and Jennifer Pearce bring the right balance of deer-in-the-headlights and raging hormones to their roles as goo-goo-eyed young virgin lovers.
Again, there is nothing in Forum that is important, revelatory or groundbreaking. It's just solid, old-fashioned fun, a diversion that is much harder to pull off than it may look to the naked eye. It's raucous and ribald, silly and stupid, but still wittier and better constructed than most comedy you'd see on TV today. And that reference isn't a forced comparison. Forum draws far more on legendary radio and early TV comedians than hoaried theatrical tradition. It's more Sid Caesar than Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, more Jack Benny and Milton Berle than Rodgers & Hammerstein. It has no moral or message. And while it may not incite you to burn down the Bastille or charge windmills with a lance, the choice between seeing a well-produced, brainless comedy or a terribly executed serious play really isn't a choice at all.
And it's far more entertaining than that goddamn Super Bowl was.
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