It’s a pretty little picture: three houses each alike in dignity— wait, wrong play. Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight! And comedy is what you’re getting as the Heritage Players mount to the stage A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. With Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, and Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, this kooky comedy has laughs for everyone. Courtesans, slaves, ingénues, there’s a dash of everything in this musical Directed and Choreographed by Katie Sheldon, ancient Rome rollicks to life with humors flowing high in the aqueducts of daily life as one servant fights for his right to freedom.
Set Designer Ryan Geiger takes great pride and care in his creation of the three fair houses of the story. (With a special thanks to his construction team Andrea Bush, Al Gillis, and Robin Trenner) Geiger captures the essence of a thriving city street in Ancient Rome with three similar but very different two-tiered structures. Having each of the ‘houses’ existing with balconies and windows on the second story adds an element of hilarity to the already farcical nature of this production. The Courtesan House is distinguished from its sister houses with its garish pink coloring and tasteful, albeit erotic, naked statue at its entrance. Pink bamboo string curtains complete the look and leave the other two houses looking quite ordinary. Geiger even employs the use of classic Roman columns outside the house of Senex, creating a regal aesthetic of riches and nobility.
Costume Designer Robin Trenner heightens the authentic, albeit comic, feel of Rome as it stands with flowing tunics in many colors. Her array of rainbow colors is most prominently displayed in the courtesans, where the Geminae twins feature sheer but vibrant pink and Tintinabula wears a rich shade of sapphire. Gentle white tunics for the ingénue lovers feels fitting as does the vulgar red and black striped getups for the two household servants. Trenner’s finest piece, however, is the over glorified uniform of Miles Gloriosus. Gleaming with the hubris befitting of the character, this costume takes the drachma.
Director Katie Sheldon, serving as the shows Choreographer, brings a series of routines to the stage that is suited for the masses. Company numbers like “Comedy Tonight” involve marching box step, and simple turns that create a unified look during the performance. Sheldon’s more complex dance routines, like the belly-dancing performed by Tintinabula (Katie Jones) are visually stimulating. There were, however, missed opportunities to really heighten the comedy of this show with more dancing. “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” had the entire stage to work with and could have had more dancing occurring among the men.
Sheldon’s approach to the farcical elements of the musical need tightening, though this will improve as the show runs its duration. The chase scenes toward the end of the production where there are three white virgin bride dashing about on the stage need to occur much more quickly. Sheldon does hit the comic timing on the head, however, with the three Proteans and their constant physical shenanigans.
Leonard Taube, Neal Townsend, and Vince Vuono comprise the trio of comic clowns and their understanding of physical shtick as well as impeccable comic timing makes for scene-stealing laughter that will have the audience in hysterics. With over a dozen different occurrences as various characters, Taube, Townsend, and Vuono live in the sparkling limelight with their hilarious antics. Making rapid entrances and exits, often with subtle costume changes, they embody a world of different characters from bombastic pirates to tittering eunuchs; on the whole some of the most entertaining and uproarious moments in the show erupting out of this trio’s work.
A good comedy has sex appeal and the Courtesans are supplementing that notion. Lead by Gymnasia (Angela Stein) the girls are called out one at a time during “The House of Marcus Lycus.” Stein really sells the notion of sensuality in her performance; strutting her body and pouting with a fabulously titillating attitude when she sashays over to Pseudolus. If her charged charisma is contagious, all the courtesans of the house of Marcus Lycus will be in good shape.
Some characters were born great, some characters have greatness thrust upon them, and some characters like Miles Gloriosus (Jim Gross) thrust their pomp and circumstance all over the stage when they arrive. Gross gives an exceptionally hysterical performance as the hubris-filled marching Captain; taking his role gravely serious which in turn makes it wildly laughable for those watching. His big booming voice echoes soundly for “Bring Me My Bride,” and again, with a much heavier tone of melancholy for “Funeral.” His imposing stature is augmented with a healthy dose of arrogant chutzpah; the perfect comic device to move act I into the intermission.
Ingénues always come in pairs; Philia (Emily Biondi) and Hero (Dave Hill) make up the couple in this production. Like their tragic tale of struggling to be together, they are tragically washed out by the orchestra during big numbers like their duet “Lovely.” Hill plays the confused virgin male with a strongly dulled wit. His duet “Impossible,” shared with Senex (Stuart C. Kazanow) is a highly-comic routine that has the pair of them blasting each other’s faults in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Kazanow wins the funniest moment of the show with an improvised line shouted from off-stage, but to keep the humorous surprise intact, we won’t give it away here. Biondi fulfills her vocal potential during “That’ll Show Him,” with clear, concise notes that go up and down her range. The three actors play well off one another as the two men unwittingly vie for the young lady’s affections.
Keep calm and don’t be Hysterium (John Sheldon). Plagued with panic around every corner, Sheldon works the physicality of his character’s nervous disposition, running about in a frantic manic state nearly every time something goes awry. Sheldon’s precise understanding of comic delivery keeps his character on his toes and it keeps the audience gripping their sides from laughing so hard. He even cuts a pretty picture in a fabulous costume change in the second act.
Narrating the show is Pseudolus (Ryan Geiger). In homage to Nathan Lane, who originated the role, Geiger adapts vocal cues and timing for some of his delivery throughout the performance. Geiger has a crisp and powerful voice, almost sounding operatic at times. Numbers like “Pretty Little Picture” and “Free” have echoes of his vocal strength. Geiger’s comic timing and delivery are not flawless but when he does land a joke the audience gets a good chuckle from his plight. Fluctuating between being physically stiff and vocally exasperating, Geiger struggles to find a comfortable balance for his overall presence on the stage, but when he leads the men in “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” he eases into a comic routine that is the best he presents in the production.
Be sure to catch Heritage Players’ A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum- the comedy upon the stage at the Rice auditorium- which means you should go tonight, as it is always…tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum plays through April 13, 2014 at The Heritage Players at The Rice Auditorium— 55 Wade Avenue in Catonsville, MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 575-6645 or purchase them online.