A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Well, a lot. This version of Forum unites one of the area's best directors, Terrence J. Nolen, with a cast of the best comic actors around. The result breathes new life into Sondheim's most comical show. This Forum is a worthy successor to the Arden's great productions of such Sondheim shows as Sweeney Todd and Pacific Overtures.
The invention and energy that Nolen brings is evident even in the first scene, when the song "Comedy Tonight" is interrupted by a wonderful in-joke that refers to one of the Arden's most famous productions - and brings the house down. (Don't worry if you haven't seen a show at the Arden before - you'll still laugh.)
The plot is as old as the seven hills of Rome: scheming slave Pseudolus wants his freedom in return for uniting his master's son, Hero, with his true love, Philia. However, there are, in the tradition of farce, a lot of snags: a house of ill repute, a Roman soldier who has been promised Philia as his bride, Hero's parents (who won't stay out of town as expected), a next door neighbor (who also won't stay out of town as expected), and Hysterium, a slave whose attempts to solve the problems somehow end up with him dressing as a woman and pretending to be dead.
With this cast, such hoary complications seem remarkably fresh. Tony Braithwaite is a perfect clown, and he makes a perfect Pseudolus. You might catch a few echoes of Nathan Lane and Eddie Cantor in his performance, but he seamlessly blends the best traits of those great comics into his own unique style. Also outstanding are Richard Ruiz as a most hysterical Hysterium and Jeffrey Coon as a strong (and strong-voiced) Miles Gloriosus. Tom McCarthy and Mary Martello make a great pair as the henpecked Senex and the shrewish Domina; their expressions - his bewildered, hers withering - speak a legion of words.
There are also finely detailed turns by a supporting cast of Proteans and Courtesans; each shows off a distinct personality. And high school senior Caroline Dooner shows real star quality as Philia; she has great stage presence and reveals a daffy comic flair (not to mention a gorgeous voice) on "Lovely" and "That'll Show Him."
Sondheim's early score may lack the tight integration of his later works, but it's hard to find fault in clever songs like "I'm Calm" and "Pretty Little Picture." The cast is up to the challenge, getting every possible laugh out of the intricate rhymes and rhythms. (McCarthy did fall behind the beat a few times on opening night, but it didn't detract from his otherwise fine performance.)
This Forum's flaws are minor ones: Jarrod Lentz is a tad dull as Hero, and Michael Donaghy's choreography is uninteresting (although that may be due to the limited playing area on Donald Eastman's set).
"Art isn't easy," Sondheim wrote in another musical - and neither is doing a Sondheim show. Terrence Nolen and his splendid cast make it look easy, yet a show as intricate as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is far from foolproof. Fortunately, the Arden has assembled some magnificent fools. You'll love them.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs through June 25 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia. Tickets range from $27 to $45, and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at http://www.ardentheatre.org, or by visiting the box office.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to