Thank goodness for good old-fashioned musical comedy! A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is playing at Goodspeed Musicals, now through November 29th. This celebrated musical from 1962, the first to feature music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is an uninhibited frolic, full of one-liners, pratfalls, slapstick, and timeless Sondheim songs.
The show is a classic on many levels; it is based on the works of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus and it borrows heavily from the traditional comedic styles of burlesque, vaudeville and farce. It is risqué without being raunchy – the kind of play that with a knowing wink could be described as being “a tad off-shade.” But for all its ribald jokes, double-entendres and double takes, it is the kind of play that I could not take offense at. I was laughing too hard.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum tells the story of a slave named Pseudolus who hatches an ingenious plot to gain his freedom by helping his master’s son get Philia, the girl he loves, who just happens to be a courtesan in the brothel next door. Pseudolus’s simple plan goes awry when the boy's parents, the owner of the brothel, the head slave, the Roman general who just bought Philia for his bride, and an ancient neighbor in search of his children who were stolen by pirates get into the act. The comedy escalates with each new character and situation, and there are lots of mix-ups, mistaken identities and swinging doors, but Pseudolus keeps his eyes on the prize – his freedom – even in the presence of the beauties of the brothel: Panacea, Gymnasia, Vibrata, Tintinabula, and the twins, Geminae.
The women are portrayed as over-sexed eye candy, brainless beauties, or over-bearing shrews. Except for Pseudolus, the men are also over-sexed and dimwitted. However, the characters are painted with such broad stereotypes that we know the characterizations are part of the joke. Sondheim’s songs also help perpetuate the send-up with lyrics like, “I’m lovely, all I am is lovely, lovely is the only thing I can do” and “Everybody ought to have a maid.”. Outside of the play, these songs could be construed as demeaning, but here they are played for laughs and fit perfectly with the characters who sing them.
On the night I attended, the performances were a mixed bag. As the young lovers, Hero and Philia, Sam Pinkleton and Emily Thompson fizzled instead of sizzled. I thought they were somewhat boring as a couple, and missing that spark of chemistry that would ignite their relationship. I also thought that Ron Wisniski, whose mannerisms reminded me of Walter Matthau, overplayed the role of Marcus Lycus, the owner of the brothel, to the point were it seemed like he was almost shouting his lines.
My favorite performances of the evening were those of Adam Heller as Pseudolus, and John Scherer, who practically stole the show as the head slave, Hysterium. Mary Gutzi played Domina, Hero’s mother, with aplomb, dominating the stage with her presence and her tremendous singing voice. David Wohl also shone in his role as Senex, Domina’s husband. He looked so weary, henpecked and downtrodden that I almost felt sorry for him, and could understand why, when he was away from his wife, he wanted to “play.” Almost understand, that is.
The courtesans all seemed like adequate dancers, with some better than others, but they really did not get much of a chance to show off their dancing skills. I’m not sure if it was the fault of director/choreographer Ted Pappas, or just a result of what appeared to be a crowded set, but it seemed they did little more than gyrate around the stage to show off their bodies to an enraptured Psuedolus during the song "The House of Marcus Lycus."
Despite the lack of memorable dancing, the show provided an enjoyable evening of theater. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is diverting enough to make you forget about the real world and immerse yourself in the laughter of the story that unfolds before you. As the famous opening song says, it’s “tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.”
About the theater: Goodspeed Musicals produces three musicals each season at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT and additional productions at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT. Goodspeed is the only regional theater to receive two Tony Awards for outstanding achievement. It also maintains the Scherer Library of Musical Theatre and the Max Showalter Center for Education in the Musical Theater. For more information or for tickets, visit them online or call 860-873-8668.
Photos © 2009 Diane Sobolewski, Goodspeed Musicals