The opening number of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, “Comedy Tonight,” promises, “Something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone…tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!” If its comedy and baudy that you are expecting, you will most definitely not be disappointed! Alan Paul’s brilliant mainstage directorial debut at Shakespeare Theatre Company is rife with smart, comical moments, and staging that is full of boundless energy, endless laughs, impeccable choreography, and high flying acrobatics!
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart with a music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and has enjoyed success on Broadway and the West End, and it has returned home to DC, the city of its Pre-Broadway preview. This musical treasure is a joy from the beginning. It’s smart and funny, filled with slapstick comedy, every line is dripping with double entendres, and the plot is an intricately entwined web that would unravel if any of the actors were not spot-on.
Forum is the hysterically funny story of a Roman slave named Pseudolus (Bruce Dow) and his endeavors to win his freedom from his master, Hero (Nick Verina). Hero’s parents, Senex (Steve Vinovich) and his domineering wife, Dominia (Julie Johnson) head off to the country leaving their son Hero and the house in the care of the “head slave” Hysterium (Tom Story). Unbeknownst to his parents, Hero has fallen in love with one of the girls in the house next door.
The cunning Pseudolus devises a scheme to help his master woo the girl from Marcus Lycus’ (Danny Rutigliano) house of ill-repute in exchange for becoming a free man. Pseudolus convinces Lycus that he is a free man and looking for a wife. After a parade of girls, including a feather clad dancer, a pair of twins, and a dominatrix, Pseudolus learns that Hero’s love is Philia (Lora Lee Gayer), a virgin from the Island of Crete who has already been sold to Captain Miles Gloriosus (Edward Watts). Miles Gloriosus is due to arrive at any moment. Pseudolus then devises a clever scheme to give Philia and Hero some time together by convincing Lycus that Philia has a “smiling” plague. All hell breaks loose and hilarity ensues when Senex returns home and is mistaken by Philia as Gloriosus, Miles Gloriosus arrives to collect his bride, Domina returns home to confirm her suspicions of her husband’s infidelity, and Erronius (Harry Winter)—Senex’s neighbor who has been away for many years searching for his kidnapped children—unexpectedly returns home. Mistaken identities, fast paced chases, cross-dressing, a fake funeral, high-energy choreography by Josh Rhodes that includes can-can dances and a bit of tap dancing, and clever and snarky barbs kept me laughing out loud all night.
Every casting choice in this production is impeccable. Dow, as the sly, but ever-so-lovably funny Pseudolus was born for the role! He is engaging, energetic, and funny, and his comedic timing and deadpan snarky asides are delivered with aplomb. Even in moments where things didn’t go exactly as planned, he managed to “roll with the punches” and didn’t miss a step, making slight adjustments (and improvisations) that had me in wonderment of his quick-witted comebacks!
Nick Verina’s adorable Hero – the innocent, starry-eyed fool in love – has you rooting for a happy ending for him. Gayer, who plays the dim-witted, but oh-so-lovely Philia, does such a good job that I want to sit her down and give her a lesson in counting. Story as the neurotic Hysterium- who is forced to become ‘lovely’ in life and death- is genius in the role. In fact, when he was singing “I’m Calm,” I was ready to throw him a fistful of Prozac to end his misery. Watts’ plays the egomaniacal Miles Gloriosus so well, that I could almost see him preening. Vinovich’s Senex is just the right amount of lascivious old man so that its funny and laughable and not creepy. Johnson is a scary and domineeringly screechy Domina, just as I imagined she would be!
A round of applause should go to the Proteans played by Matthew Bauman, Nick Flatto, and Blakely Slaybaugh. They are an intergral part of the success of the show. They play various roles from eunuchs to Roman soldiers, to pirates and require agility, acrobatics, exact rhythmic timing (in their choreography), precise mimicry, and quick wardrobe changes – and they do it with such style and flair.
Set Designer James Noone’s simple yet classically Roman set, full of black marble and gilded columns, gives the airy feeling of an ancient Roman street. The two story houses with functional balconies not only provide additional opportunities for comical misdirection – but add to the reality of the set. Costume Designer David C. Woolard’s colorful costumes may seem typical for a show set in ancient Rome—Togas, tunics, and robes for the men, long flowy dresses for the virgins, and shiny gold and silver decorated lappets with a galea (typical roman soldier’s helmet) for the soliders—but there are some pleasant surprises such like Senex’s convertible tunics Lycus’s brightly colored, leopard print and purple ensemble, and the racy garb of the various girls from Lycus’ house.
The small orchestra, led by Musical Director Adam Wachter, delivers a sound far fuller than its size would suggest and provides an exemplary performance of Sondheim’s catchy, upbeat, and jaunty score. Kudos to the talented musicians of the wonderful orchestra: Jonathan Tuzman (Keyboards /Assistant Musical Director), George Fulginiti-Shakar (Keyboards), Bruno Nasta (Violin), Keith Daudelin (Reeds), Dennis Ferry (Trumpet), Paul Schultz (Trombone), and Mark Carson (Percussion).
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s hilarious A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is part vaudeville, slightly burlesque, and all remarkably funny! If you’re looking for a ‘hold your belly’ laughing good time, rush out and buy tickets! They’ll make the perfect holiday gift!
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with a 15-minute intermission. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum plays through January 5, 2014 at Sydney Harman Hall at Shakespeare Theatre Company – 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.