A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a musical farce based on the plays of Plautus. It is the first musical with both music and lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim. It follows a Roman slave named Pseudolus (Anthony Lynch) as he attempts several schemes to win his freedom from his master Hero (Andrew Fergerson) by helping Hero win the heart of the beautiful courtesan Philia (Justine Miller). As with any good farce, the chaos that ensues involves mistaken identities, fast entrances and exits, and at least one man dressed as a woman. The Bay City Players production of Forum succeeds because of a top notch cast of actors assembled by director Mike Wisniewski.
By far the biggest stand outs were David King and Carol Rumba as Hero’s parents, Senex and Domina. Both had limited time onstage compared to some of the other roles, but used every moment to chew the scenery and deliver some of the evening’s strongest puns. Lynch, as our main hero Pseudolus, carried the show beautifully in what might be one of the more difficult male musical theatre roles. His time offstage is limited and he uses his extended moments onstage to create a very funny and sympathetic character, allowing the audience to really care about him even when his schemes get more and more ridiculous.
Fergerson and Miller, as our two young lovers, had a bit of trouble with some of the higher notes in their songs, but played the innocence and naiveté required to allow all the crazy hijinks to occur around them and still remain aloof. As the story progressed we were also introduced to Hysterium (Jake Monroe), a slave belonging to Senex and Domina, and Lycus (Kelley Gray), a “dealer of courtesans”. Both actors started out with smaller appearances in the beginning of our plot, but gradually their involvement increased and the overly anxious slave and sleazy brothel owner added a lot of much needed humor with their completely opposite personalities.
Choreography by Holly Haga Bills was simple but effective in moments when it was used. Some songs, particularly those that went on for a longer time with multiple verses, had the actors standing in place and could have been more interesting with additional choreography from Bills or movement from Wisniewski. While individual performances were strong and led to a lot of very funny moments, the overall pace tended to slow as the night progressed. Farce is a very difficult genre to perform, as it requires the stakes to get higher and higher as the pace and speed of the show increases, but this Forum tended to stay at a pretty even keel, we never quite felt the controlled chaos that comes with a farce.
The orchestra provided a lush background to the show, skillfully playing a score from the notoriously difficult composer, Sondheim. Vocal director Bianca Henika had her work cut out for her with quite a few fast-paced patter songs and while some of the voices of this cast struggled a bit with remembering some of the more difficult lyrics and harmonies, they combined together to make a beautiful sound during the ensemble numbers.
Set design by Erin Frye was made up of three buildings, two of which had characters appearing out of second floor windows and balconies. There was a sense of much-needed simplicity in this design with a few little puns thrown in here and there for eagle-eyed audience members. Sound design is always a hit-or-miss issue with Bay City Players and there were a few moments where mics were turned on a bit too late and some awkward moments where actors not wearing mics were picked up if they stood too close to another actor. Costume design by Joy Butler was a mixture of many colors and textures, allowing us to see the Roman influence but also hint that this musical is definitely telling a much crazier story then the Romans ever saw.
While it might not be as well known as some other musicals Sondheim would later be involved in, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a strong showcase for comedic actors and the Bay City Players production does not disappoint in this respect. Farces are always a great escape from the real world and this one has the benefit of also featuring some catchy music that you will be humming as you leave the theatre.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs September 28th-October 1st and October 4th-7th at Bay City Players at 1214 Columbus Avenue in Bay City. For tickets, visit baycityplayers.org or call 989-893-5555.