Cincinnati's Playhouse In the Park has often produced the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. For their latest foray into the composer/lyricist’s catalogue, the recent Tony Award winning theater reaches back over forty years with their production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Forum). The result is a pleasant and funny crowd-pleaser of a show which opens their 2005-2006 theater season.
Forum debuted on Broadway in 1962, where it won the Tony Award for Best Musical. The show also had a successful revival in 1996 starring Nathan Lane. The story follows the efforts of a slave, Pseudolus, to gain his freedom. In order to do so, he must unite his young master with a gorgeous virgin courtesan who has been sold to a great warrior. Mixed in the fray is a never ending string of mishaps, cases of mistaken identity, and other general mayhem.
Unlike most musicals by Sondheim, the book for Forum takes precedence over the songs. The story by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove is peppered with all sorts of silly antics, groan-inducing puns, and sight gags galore. The musical plays out like a vaudevillian burlesque show, and the fourth wall is broken by numerous interactions with the audience. Despite its decidedly lowbrow approach, the show is oftentimes hilarious, and the audience eats it up.
Stephen Sondheim's score is less sophisticated here than in his later works, necessarily matching the bawdy material. Still, Sondheim’s intelligence and wit are evident in his lyrics, and several melodies showcase the talent he would later refine. “Comedy Tonight” is the perfect opening number to set-up the show. It is difficult to imagine that the song was a last minute addition to the original production. “Lovely” aptly describes the tune of the song, and “Everybody Ought To Have a Maid” is an old-fashioned comedy showstopper.
Playhouse’s production certainly is a fun and entertaining one. Director Ed Stern delivers many nicely staged scenes and numbers. The song “Pretty Little Picture” has just the right dreamlike tone and uses props very well in its storytelling. The show’s scene changes flow smoothly throughout as well. Though Stern’s rendering causes the humor to seem somewhat forced and predictable at times, the comedy still lands squarely and produces the desired laughs from theatergoers. The pace of the second act could be quickened as well to the benefit of the show. The limited choreography by Janet Watson is appropriate, if uninspired.
Forum provides lots of great moments for many performers, and this cast is first rate. As Pseudolus, Bob Walton isn’t going to win any awards for his singing, but he ably and calmly guides the action in the perfect vaudevillian clown style. He wins over the audience very early on and is well suited to the comedy and role. Jeff Skowron is a joy to watch as Hysterium, a too-eager-to-please slave that is a ball of nervousness, and Nat Chandler is vocally impressive as Miles Gloriosus. Also doing well in support are John Seidman (Senex), Lynn Eldredge (Domina), Eric Ulloa (Hero), Lynette Knapp (Philia), Keith Jochim (Marcus Lycus) and Whit Reichert (Erronius). And, even though they don’t get much time in the spotlight, the young actors portraying the proteans and courtesans deserve kudos as well for their worthwhile efforts.
The scenic design for Forum by John Ezell consists of a unit set of three houses on an ancient Roman street. With cartoonish details and angled columns, the playful design is suitable for the show. The set extends out into the audience thanks to the many humorous placards mixing familiar modern sayings with places and settings of ancient times. David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes effectively mix modern and ancient garbs in a campy collection, and the stylized lighting by Peter E. Sargent provides an apt atmosphere for the proceedings.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a safe and humorous show that is sure to amuse audiences. Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park provides a talented cast and enough other worthwhile efforts to make for a successful production. Forum continues through October 7, 2005. For more information, visit www.cincyplay.com or call (513) 421-3888.
Playhouse’s next adventure with Stephen Sondheim will be much more of a challenge. In the Spring of 2006, director John Doyle, who is overseeing the new revival of Sweeney Todd this fall on Broadway, will helm a new production of Company here in Cincinnati that is sure to be different from the norm.