Sondheim’s 1962 musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum combines the infectious energy of vaudeville with the stock comedic characters of Ancient Rome to create a truly hilarious musical farce. All the familiar elements are there: a smooth-talking con man, an uptight straight man, a starry eyed young lover, a beautiful ingénue, a lecherous old father, his shrewish wife, and a whole lot of doors slamming, physical humor, puns, and downright absurd situations. Set against the backdrop of Ancient Rome and moved along by a tight ensemble, the stage is set for a wild romp.
Some actors are very successful in this playground. David King as Senex positively oozes over-the-top lechery, enjoying every second of his stage time and showcasing a beautiful voice in his comic number “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.” He interacts brilliantly with his fellow castmates, especially wife Domina (played with a regal beauty and harpy’s voice by Carol Rumba) and displays impressive physicality. Also excellent is Kelley Gray as Marcus Lycus, the slimy purveyor of courtesans who lives next door. He is equal parts Littlefinger from Game of Thrones and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, and has just the right amount of sleaze. Director Mike Wisniewski has assembled an excellent chorus of courtesans, each of whom make the most of their moments to shine. Particularly great are the Gemenae played by Natalie Schwartz and Marcy Chambers, and Gymnasia played by Lauren Klett; all three of these actresses were always in character and had good physicality. The rest of these talented courtesans were played by Cathy Gibboney, Katy Hamilton, and Liberty Starkwether Smith.
A little less successful were a few of the leading actors. Most of the humor in a farce relies on physical comedy and reactions/interactions. In Forum, this dynamic plays out between two slaves, Pseudolus (Anthony Lynch) and Hysterium (Jake Monroe.) While Pseudolus is fast talking, quick thinking, and always manages to come out on top, Hysterium is, well… hysterical. Or at least he’s supposed to be. While both actors definitely have the vocal chops to deliver their hefty load of songs, they were missing the back-and-forth energy needed to land jokes and move the show consistently forward. Lynch seems to be trying to find a gentler, kinder Pseudolus and as a result many of his jokes landed too soft. Monroe spent a little too much time quietly sobbing and missed out on the frantic energy of his character. The pacing of the show runs a bit slow, especially in the first act. It seems that Wisniewski has placed value on exposition and character development over laughs, which normally would be great, but in a farce can be a problem.
Justine Miller plays Philia, a young virgin who is sold to a powerful captain but also entices most of the men in the show. It’s a tough role, as the actress must play a Monroe-esque blend of innocent and sexy, uneducated but also little smart. Miller certainly looks the part and has good physical energy, but her line delivery falls short of ditsy, and she struggles a bit with her songs. Andrew Fergerson, playing her counterpoint, Hero, is an unusual casting choice for the part of starry-eyed loverboy with his gravelly rock belt, but he sounds nice and has an interesting take on the role. And a review of the show wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the perfectly cast Dave Ryan as a hammy, egomaniacal Captain - his booming voice and exaggerated machismo were a welcome livening to the second act. Rounding out the cast were Tim Simons as a small but pivotal role, and Dale Gibboney, Matt Kehoe, and Avery Weller, who played “Proteans” and several other roles throughout the show.
Forum was written in 1962, and parts of it haven’t aged well. The entire plot of the show revolves around trickery-for-sex, and the female characters, almost entirely prostitutes, pretty much exist in this world to look pretty and be the butt of jokes. Philia in particular is problematic - people are constantly trying to drug her, abduct her, or sleep with her under dubious circumstances (even her supposed “true love”), and her character is never given a voice of her own. Her song “Lovely” could be played for irony or laughs, but it isn’t. One problem with toning down the exaggerated archetypes of each character is that we start seeing them as people, and what they’re doing stops being funny and starts being a little gross.
That being said, there are genuine moments of laugh-out-loud humor. Vocals by Bianca Henika and music by James Pawloski sounded great; there is some heavyweight vocal talent on display here, and most of the songs sound beautiful and were audible and clear. Lighting design by Aaron Butler was good - everyone was competently lit, and there were subtle shifts at appropriate times. The set by Erin Frye was also lovely and functional, with three colorful houses and some funny nods hidden on stage. Costumes by Joy Butler were lively, cohesive, and well fitting, and makeup by Carrie Butler was appropriately over the top. Some of the wig work by Randi Dalton was excellent, especially the numerous pieces worn by Rumba. Choreography was done by Holly Bills, and sound design was by Tom Randolph. Props were by Diana Sevilla and Theresa Van Sumeren.
Overall, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a treat for the eyes and the ears, but misses the mark a little on the comedy it promises in the opening number. At 2 hours and 30 minutes, it drags a bit in the first act (a necessity of the script), but picks up in Act 2. Come prepared for adult themes.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum will run at Bay City Players September 28-30 and October 4-6, with Thursday-Saturday shows at 7:30 PM and Sunday shows at 3 PM. Tickets are available at the box office or by visiting baycityplayers.org.