The American University Department of Performing Arts production of Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” goes for the spirit of fun and irreverence at the heart of this both modern and very ‘ancient’ classic. It is an entertaining evening in the theatre and largely successful in maintaining the tone and energy of the show throughout.
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is a musical which adapts and amalgamates three ancient Roman plays by Titus Maccius Plautus and is set around three neighboring households in Rome. The story revolves around Pseudolus (here played by Izzy Smelkinson), a slave who longs for freedom, and the schemes she constructs in order to achieve it, as well as the schemes to fix those initial schemes when they inevitably go awry. The three households present three doors, which in the tradition of farce are mistaken for one another, just as the residents of the households are also mistaken for one another. The ensuing confusion and intertwining plots include pirates, a hilarious ‘gaggle of giggling Eunuchs,’ and the occasional flatulence gag as it trips and careens its way towards a happy ending. Director Cara Gabriel has given her cast latitude to play, thrown in a few extra gags, and captures the essential silliness necessary for a serious rendition of the show.
…goes for the spirit of fun and irreverence at the heart of this both modern and very ‘ancient’ classic.
While Stephen Sondheim may now be a musical theatre god, when “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” first opened, with a prologue informing us that the theatre is a temple where we are to ‘worship’ the gods of drama, the 32-year-old Sondheim was a mere mortal. Having worked as a lyricist with composers Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne on “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” respectively, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” was his first broadway show as both lyricist and composer. The music was poorly received, a common occurrence for a Sondheim score, but as usual, this is no reflection on its quality. For a composer haunted by the accusation of not being “hummable,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is very catchy. Choreographer Britta Joy Peterson brings the opening number, and catch cry for the evening – “Comedy Tonight” – to life, replete with Beyoncé moves, and full chorus line. The energy of this number follows a well constructed escalating trajectory and becomes a strong ensemble number under sound musical direction by Elizabeth Gerbi.
Seth Andrew Watring, the imposing and unpredictable Miles Gloriosus, takes over the stage, his imposing voice, and extraordinary physicality both wonderful and hilarious. Smelkinson does well with the larger role of Pseudolus, managing comedy in the balance between sincerity and deception, both behind and in front of The Fourth Wall. Erica Kilgore gave the strongest solo vocal performance of the night, as Domina, in her frank but accurate song about her husband: “That Dirty Old Man.” Matt Winton has a beautiful and sweet vocal tone as Hero, though the mix of his mic, and the balance with the orchestra didn’t allow this to be fully exploited.
Jason Arnold’s set is grand yet functional. While a working water feature is a nice aesthetic touch, its sound was quite disruptive in the first scene, and it became a somewhat puzzling distraction, as it stopped and started through the show. The lighting design (also by Arnold) very clearly articulated the musical numbers, though the repeated dramatic lighting shifts out of the songs become less compelling as the show continued.
At times, the wonderful self-awareness of the performance was lost a little, and the cleverly constructed “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” is so explicit with additional gestures, that it seems to lose some of its original power and charm. The songs were stronger when less demonstrative. Mimicking sleep while singing “sleeping in,” for example, didn’t seem to add anything to the tlyric or our understanding of it.
Cara Gabriel says in her director’s note that Plautus’ models borrow from the Greek New Comedy tradition, in which the Greek fascination with satire is diminished. She making the interesting argument that satire relies on a certain amount of shared cultural and national identity, while the diversity of the Roman Empire led to a preference for the universality of farce.
While “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” should maybe feel a little dated now, there is something about it that does feel timeless. Perhaps it’s this sense of farce, enriched by Shevelove’s desire to get some good old-fashioned “low-brow comedy” on Broadway. There is also, perhaps, a broader cultural awareness of the gender politics inherent in the original, than when the musical was first performed, and the gender-blind casting of this production seems a good way of continuing to explore this aspect of the show and our relationship to it. In the words of the opening number there are “old situations” with “new complications,” but in the end, the American University Department of Performing Arts deliver on their opening promise: “Something for everyone: a comedy tonight.”
Running Time: Approximately 140 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: some adult themes.
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” runs until October 29th 2016 at the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre. For more information or to purchase tickets click here.