Also see Bob's review of According to Goldman
Forty-nine years after the initial production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first Broadway musical with music by Stephen Sondheim, the Paper Mill Playhouse production of the now classic low comedy musical farce provides strong support for the notion that Forum is the funniest musical comedy ever.
Based on the more than 2,000 year old Latin comedies of Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus, Forum is set on a spring day two hundred years before the Christian era on a street in Rome in front of the houses of Senex, Marcus Lycus, and Erronius. Erronius is a befuddled old man who, as Forum begins, is away on a journey seeking his son and daughter who in their early childhood twenty years ago were kidnapped by pirates. Senex is an elderly lecherous patrician (a patrician is a member of one of the original citizen families of ancient Rome. And I know this because I looked it up). In residence and business at the house of Marcus Lycus are a bevy of beautiful courtesans because, as noted in the text, Lycus is "a gentleman and a procurer."
The central character and "top banana" is Pseudolus, a cleverly manipulative slave of Hero, Lycus' boyish son. Hero tells Pseudolus that he is smitten by and wants to marry one of the courtesans (as it turns out, the virgin Philia). The resourceful Pseudolus gets Hero to agree to free him from slavery if he successfully procures Philia to become Hero's bride. The first complication of a hilariously written and played farcical two hours of such faced by Pseudolus is that Philia has already been bought and paid for by the brutal and brutally satirized Roman army captain, Miles (pronounced Meal-lus) Gloriosus who is about to arrive to claim her for his bride. All of the character types in Forum are adapted directly from Plautus.
The news is that, in every area, the Paper Mill Forum is in good hands. The casting of Paul Vogt (who made his Broadway debut as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray and subsequently replaced Harvey Fierstein in the role in Las Vegas) in the crucial role of Pseudolus is nigh on to inspired. Tireless and loose limbed with a natural instinct for physical comedy and all manner of verbal comic tones from high dudgeon to sniveling obsequiousness, Vogt delivers and lands every one of the familiar punch lines with a deft accuracy that makes each feel fresh and spontaneous. Vogt portrays Pseudolus with the seeming ease and delight of a happy child given the run of F.A.O. Schwarz. While not as imperviously commanding a Pseudolus as Zero Mostel back in the day (and, pray tell, who could be), Vogt is as loveable a Pseudolus as we are likely to see. His performance and rendition of the brilliant evening setting "Comedy Tonight" is a total delight. Vogt also manages to preserve the underlying heartfelt sincerity of Pseudolus' desire to no longer be a slave, which finds its most delightful expression in Sondheim's "Free."
There is not a weak link in the entire cast. John Scherer invokes a bit of Charles Nelson Reilly as Hysterium, the Pseudolus-dominated, nervous ninny of a head slave of the house of Senex. Scherer is, most amusingly, not "Lovely" when impressed by Pseudolus into portraying the captain's "deceased" bride. Greg Vinkler captures all of the humor of the foolish and clueless Senex. Vinkler impeccably leads off the playfully lascivious and bouncily comic tune Everybody Ought to Have a Maid. Always spot on in his own imposing and foolish high dudgeon, Stephen R. Buntrock brings a strong and deep baritone to his Miles Gloriosus. Stephen Berger is solidly amusing as the credulous and cowardly procurer, Marcus Lycus. Chet Carlin draws more laughter than one would have thought existed in the role with his crowd-pleasing take on the hapless Erronius.
Not taking a backseat to any of the other clowns, Beth McVey as Domina, the wife of Senex and mother of Hero, hilariously stops the show with just one stupefying and disdainful stare. Her semi-operatic "That Dirty Old Man (of Mine)" is also of the showstopping variety.
Justin Bowen's Hero is boyish, sweetly sung and thoroughly engaging. Chelsea Krombach is charmingly dotty and winsome (now where did I get that word), and sings beautifully. The courtesans are lovely to behold. Kristine Bendul (Tintinabula), Chondra L. Profit (Panacea), and Kristine Covillo (Vibrata) take full advantage of the excellent choreography provided by Vince Pesce for the scene where Lycus offers them to Pseudolus for sale. In this scene, Anne Otto and Lara Seibert (The Geminae) sharply execute an acrobatic pose, while Liz McKendry (Gymnasia) only gets the opportunity to be impressive (and she certainly is!). Energetically entertaining throughout, Ryan Dietz, Timothy Howell and Bert Shuford are the ubiquitous Proteans (have you ever questioned what is a Protean?) who play all the other rolesactors/stagehands, eunuchs, servants and soldiers with the exception of Prologus.
Most impressive is the inventive, buoyant and sharply timed and executed direction by Mark Waldrop. It would be impossible for me to accurately pinpoint the old bits from the new, but Waldrop's Forum is chock-a-block rapid fire and funny physical shtick in a performance which feels fresh and spontaneous. I think that some rehearsal ad-libs may have made their way onto the stage. However, if they have, it has not been to an extent which derails the precision of the complicated comedy machinery created by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. I do think that I heard one altered lyric at the top of the show on opening night. Must be my mistake.
Ray Klausen's delightful set is a colorful, cartoon-like eye pleaser, providing all the areas and passageways necessary for the complicated goings on. Matthew Hemesath's colorful, ridiculously funny costumes are unique and invoke unisex clothing design. The Proteans wear sneakers (sandals are the rule for all others), the colors of each pair (red, orange and yellow) appear color coordinated with the doors and windows of the three onstage houses (pink, orange and yellow).
Sondheim's score is remarkably successful in carrying over the humor of the book into melodious song. Among a slew of lightheartedly entertaining and truly funny songs, only "Pretty Little Picture" and "That'll Show Him" fail to ignite sparks.
The gods of the theatre have smiled on us and we now have A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Paul Vogt joyfully starring as Pseudolus in a spanking new, hilarious, sharply directed and performed homegrown Paper Mill production.
(I brought my five year old veteran theatergoer grandson Isaac to the opening night performance of Forum after previewing the show and considering its suitability for him. Might there be any harm for him in its comic bawdiness? Would the quality and cleverness of the writing, the fast pace, lively song and dance, and rambunctious comedy stimulate his appreciation of the joy of theatre? In my mind, "No" was the answer to the first question, and "Yes" was the answer to the second. I briefly summarized the premise of Forum to him, providing an innocent interpretation of the profession of the courtesans, and focusing in on Pseudolus' quest for freedom. I estimate that there were a dozen or more pre-adolescents in the theatre. For the most part, Isaac was delighted with the show and was one of the first audience members to rise for the obligatory standing ovation. Afterward, in talking about the show, Isaac said that he liked when Pseudolus told Hero, "to spell free the long way" and that it was funny when Philia "didn't know that three was less than five [which, of course, he knew] because she was only taught to be lovely". Although I was prepared for them, Isaac did not ask any difficult questions concerning the adult elements of Forum.
It is a close call as to the suitability ofForum for younger children and I can only relate my experience to help guide you. I would note that Forum is more likely to entertain children than most musicals. However, any parent who objects to exposing their children to misogynist humor and/or mother-in-law jokes would do well to just purchase tickets for them to next season's Paper Mill opener, Disney's The Newsies, and the balance of next season's musicals, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, Damn Yankees, and the charming Once on This Island.)
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday, Thursday 7:30 pm; Friday, Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm/ Matinees.: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm) through April 10, 2011, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; directed by Mark Waldrop