Classic comedy will leave you humming along, but hoping for more
The familiar adage, “it takes a village” is certainly proven true by the Performance Now Theater Company’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Lakewood Cultural Center. The venue’s ample stage easily handles the slapstick physicality and vigorous dance routes of the large cast of 18 without fearing someone will land up in the band pit. And the nine-piece band below can feel safe from the chaos and chicanery above them.
Both the “villagers” on stage and those supporting them behind the scenes did an admirable job of putting together a challenging show. But, unfortunately, the opening weekend matinee lacked the energy and rapport that’s required to push this classic comedy over the top. When that chemistry occurs, the audience laughter adds to the routines and fuels the double entendres. Without it, the Forum’s recipe of part vaudeville and part comedic Shakespeare feels a bit tired, leaving the chases, mistaken identifies, bawdy jokes and attempted trysts feeling somewhat overwrought.
That said, the singing and dancing were technically on track — from Josh Kwas’ flawless Pseudolus who kept the story rolling, to a strong ensemble that was consistent throughout both acts.
Twists and turns
Even if you’re not familiar with the basic premise of the somewhat complicated plot of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, you will most likely recognize many of the hummable Stephen Sondheim songs that accompany the story, including “Comedy Tonight” and “Lovely.” The story was written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove and is loosely based on the 2,000-year-old comedies of Roman playwright, Plautus.
The Forum is based on three prominent households that live in adjoining houses in Rome. In the center is the house of Senex, who lives there with wife Domina, son Hero, and several slaves, including head slave Hysterium and the musical’s main character Pseudolus. A crafty and resourceful slave belonging to Hero, Pseudolus is obsessed with buying, winning, or stealing his freedom.
One of the neighboring homes is a house of ill-repute owned by Marcus Lycus. The other belongs to the ancient Erronius, who has been abroad searching for his long-lost children (stolen in infancy by pirates).
When the master and mistress leave and put Hysterium is charge, Pseudolus discovers that his young master Hero has fallen in love with a virgin in the house of Lycus. Pseudolus quickly concocts a deal for his freedom if he can procure the girl for young Hero. However, she’s already been sold to Captain Miles Gloriosus, who is on his way to claim her. Quick-thinking Pseudolus devises a plan to thwart the captain — until everything begins to go wrong.
Certainly, the key to any successful run of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is having a strong actor in the role of Pseudolous. Kudos to Kwas, who was more than up to the role of the canny and nimble-witted slave. He seemed to effortlessly capture the bravado of Pseudolus while also pandering to the audience with a quick wink and nod to let us know he knew we were in on the prank. His performance was well-rounded as he tirelessly carried the weight of the dialog along with almost non-stop singing and dancing.
Doug Herman, as Hysterium, the slave left in charge, is a show-stealer. His tremulous take on the hapless head slave was right on and his comedic timing was perfect. Toward the end of the second act when he is a decoy for the virgin, his funeral routine demonstrates how a veteran actor can dominate a scene without a word.
Young actors and theater students Luke Fish and Hanna Dotson brought a chemistry to their respective roles as Hero and Philia (the virgin) and were delightful both separately and together. Their duet of “Lovely” showcased their singing skills, which belies their youth. T.J. Jogle absolutely nailed the blustery Captain Miles Gloriosus and his strong baritone was the perfect foil to Kris Graves as the flighty yet feisty Marcus Lycus.
A special call-out to veteran actor Dan Pagliasotti who not only personified the role of Erronius, but also kept to character as he trekked through the lobby during intermission as part of his character’s mission.
One of the wonderful things about the Forum is that is also lets members of the ensemble have their moments in the spotlight. And from the three Proteans who play multiple roles throughout the play to the ladies of the house of Lycus, they all hit the mark.
An aging show
Executive director Ken Goodwin and director Bernie Cardell did an excellent job of mixing some newer faces with veteran actors to create a strong cast for this fast-paced and at times complicated farce. Despite this, the production felt a little flat overall – as if the chemistry between the cast members was lacking and the energy level was low.
Or perhaps it’s that the classic comedy is getting a bit dated and could use a refresh. Although many reviews call it ageless, I found the female stereotypes of women as either harpies or sexualized objects to be a bit grating. And the references to social class structure also felt dated (not the concept, just the references). Not surprising considering that its backbone is based on ancient Roman humor and an original screenplay written in 1962. But, having won six Tonys and gone through several revivals on Broadway it obviously that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has staying power. But it might be interesting to see what an update would look like.
Goodwin also serves as the musical director and pulled together an excellent nine-piece orchestra as the perfect accompaniment to the Sondheim tunes. And Kelly Kates’ choreography took full advantage of the large stage with sweeping, physical routines. The individual routines for each of the ladies of the evening was right on, with Michaela Lamb stealing the limelight with her cat-like moves.
If you’re looking for an entertaining, albeit dated, classic musical (and don’t mind humming the tunes on the way home) then A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum may be your ticket.