A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum
Classic Sondheim Musical in South Florida
By: Aaron Krause - Nov 25, 2019
"Think of musical comedy, the most glorious words in the English language," Julian Marsh said in 42nd Street.
Perhaps two even more glorious words are "Comedy Tonight," given how immediately we often need laughter in the wake of disturbing events frequently and unexpectedly unfolding these days.
And what an entertaining, laugh-filled escape the nonprofit MNM Theatre Company is offering during its Carbonell Awards recommended production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
MNM's highly-physical, playful mounting of Forum runs through Dec. 8.
This classic musical is an irreverent, shameless and politically-incorrect classic farce set in ancient Rome.
This production features sight gags, verbal jokes and anachronisms, including gentle fun with shows such as West Side Story, The Wizard of Oz, Les Miserables and Fiddler on the Roof.
The cast appears to be having a swell time. Its members are deftly executing physical and verbal gymnastics. Further, they’re convincing us that chaos is reigning on stage. Yet, the action amounts to carefully-staged chaotic scenes. Finally, the cast’s comic timing is impressive.
Director Jonathan Van Dyke paces the production at a speed befitting a farce. At the same time, he allows us to follow the complex plot without feeling lost. Further, the director emphasizes playfulness and physicality. And he ensures that the performers master the legendary Sondheim’s often tongue-twisting, yet smartly-rhyming, creative lyrics.
Certainly, the performers have plenty of space to freely move on scenic designer Cindi Taylor’s colorful, bright, almost cartoonish set. These qualities nicely mirror the musical’s overall light, comic tone.
The set represents a street in ancient Rome, in front of three adjacent homes. There’s the brothel belonging to Lycus, a buyer and seller of courtesans. In addition, you’ll find on this street a much more proper residence. It belongs to Senex, his aptly-named wife, Domina, and their son, Hero. Finally, there’s the equally-appropriately-named Erronius’ home. He is searching for his son and daughter. He believes pirates kidnapped them long ago.
But the character who fuels the action is Senex’s slave, Pseudolus. You might recall that this is a character Zero Mostel made famous in the 1966 movie version.
Understandably, Pseudolus will do anything to obtain his freedom. And opportunity knocks when he learns that Hero has fallen in love. In particular, he’s fallen for one of Lycus’ courtesans-in-training — the beautiful, yet shallow Philia.
Of course, this is a farce. And so, numerous complications crop up. For instance, a vain Roman soldier has already purchased Philia to be his bride. Even old man Senex (a wide-eyed, playful Troy Stanley) has his sights set on Philia. At one point, there are even three Philias. Specifically, there’s the real one, a wig-sporting slave suitably named Hysterium (Michael Scott Ross, full of nervous energy) and a wig-bearing Domina (a melodramatic and commanding Aaron Bower). Amid all this, it will be up to Pseudolus to use his craftiness to secure the real Philia for Hero and keep the other men who desire her away.
A couple of complaints: On opening night, the sound system wasn’t working well. Hopefully the sound staff can fix this quickly to allow audience members to hear every word. Also, the production’s set includes a few doors which swing widely. If they slammed, it would enhance the farce.
With that out of the way, as the freedom-seeking slave, Johnbarry Green presents a Pseudolus who is always fun to watch. The actor, a big man with a booming voice, gives us a flashy, conniving, playful and nimble slave. Not only can Green move, but he can seemingly effortlessly change the tone and pitch of his voice to produce a variety of funny sounds. Further, Psuedolus’ desire to be free is credible, particularly during the song, “Free.” It’s a playful number that suggests that while Pseudolus is a slave, his masters treat him fairly well. Even so, who wants to be a slave?
The character sings the song as a duet with Hero, whom J. Savage plays with boyish charm and dreaminess. With a high-wattage smile and a sweet disposition, Savage’s Hero hardly seems like a cruel or even stern master. You really get the sense that, if he gets his girl, Hero will work his charms on his parents and convince them to free Pseudolus.
However, that won’t be easy.
Among those standing in the way is the aptly named Miles Gloriosus, a proud Roman soldier extraordinaire.
To his credit, Sean William Davis imbues the character with vanity, a vainglorious disposition and a commanding presence. Moreover, his thick, rich and deep voice reinforces the character’s outsized personality.
Standing in stark contrast to such a large presence is the virgin courtesan-in-training, Philia.
Meg Frost does what she can with Philia. She’s hardly a three-dimensional character, but rather a “type.” Such one-sided characters were typical in the ancient Roman comedic playwright Plautus’ works. By the way, this musical’s creators, which include television comedy writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, based Forum on plays which Plautus penned. He relied on devices such as mistaken identity, stock characters, trickery, impersonation and deception to offer audiences a good laugh.
But back to Frost. She invests Philia with a blissfully content, unaware demeanor. Her smile is charming, sweet and pleasant. And Frost succeeds in emphasizing this young lady’s shallowness.
Frost and Savage sing a duet titled “Lovely.” During this song, Philia explains that prettiness is all she can offer Hero.
Speaking of “Lovely,” it carries a rather delicate, sweet, innocent melody. Moreover, the number deftly captures Philia’s personality.
In fact, this young lady is thoroughly green and pure compared to Lycus’ courtesans.
Director Van Dyke doesn’t present anything that’s X-rated in this production. Still, it features plenty of suggestive outfits. Indeed, this show presents women as mere objects of sex and beauty. It’s a fact that shouldn’t sit well with MeToo advocates. Recognize, though, that the musical offers biting social commentary on how some wealthy and powerful people exploit women and others for their advantage.
Certainly, one doesn’t have to look far these days to identify individuals with power, influence and little morals. In the musical, Lycus is such a person.
You almost want to recoil at the manner in which Lycus (an opportunistic Terry Hardcastle) proudly smiles ear to ear as he shows off his women as objects, not people.
But nobody should take Forum too seriously. It’s a laugh-filled afternoon or evening in the theater with some stinging satire for good measure.
As a matter of fact, the opening number succeeds like few others in establishing tone and purpose. “Comedy Tonight” clearly conveys the show’s purpose. In addition, the song describes in detail what we will see throughout the course of the evening and what we can expect.
The cast offers a rousing rendition of this uplifting, ingratiating and bright opening song, with brilliantly-rhymed lyrics. To make the number more interesting, the performers pair the lyrics with appropriate gestures.
A bit later in the show, cast members execute creative dance moves during the playful “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.”
While some of Sondheim’s songs are musically-dissonant, one cannot argue that his melodies are not hummable. A clear case in point are the songs in Forum, which feature traditional harmonies. The performers sing the numbers with verve and expression, backed by a robust six-piece live band.
Music and comedy are the order of the night in this wild and wacky show. It continues to serve as a welcome respite from a troubling outside “real” world.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs from through Dec. 8. The production takes place in the Rinker Playhouse at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd. in West Palm Beach. Tickets are $39 – $55 and are on sale now. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday as well as 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information call 561-832-7469; online: kravis.org or mnmtheatre.org. For group rates and sales call 561-651-4438.