Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Forum takes place in ancient Rome, and 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 seemingly neverending string of mishaps, disguises, unwise schemes, and other general mayhem. Forum debuted on Broadway in 1962 and won the Tony Award for Best Musical at the end of the 1962-63 season.
Unlike most musicals with scores by Stephen Sondheim, the book for Forum, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, takes precedence over the songs. The story is peppered with all sorts of silly antics, sexual jokes, and sight gags. The musical plays out like a vaudevillian burlesque show, and the fourth wall is broken by numerous interactions with the audience and is oftentimes hilarious.
Stephen Sondheim's score is less sophisticated here than 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's difficult to imagine that the song was a last-minute addition to the original production. Lyrics such as "Weighty affairs will just have to wait!" demonstrate both the tone of the show and the excellence of the writing. "Lovely" aptly describes the tune of the song, and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" is an old-fashioned comedy showstopper. Even though the show won the Best Musical Tony, the score wasn't even nominated, but that isn't an indication of its quality.
The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company production certainly is a fun and entertaining one. Director Brian Isaac Phillips provides smooth transitions, effectively using the many exit and entrance points on stage, and stays true to the light tone of the piece. He incorporates a few modern references without going overboard, has his actors delightfully interacting with the audience, and plays with the sexual innuendo suitably. The varied and provocative choreography by Vine DeGeorge is highlighted in "The House of Marcus Lycus." Erin McCamley leads a talented nine-piece orchestra.
Forum is quite the ensemble piece, with chances for many performers to shine. The cast here is a mix of company regulars and newcomers, and they're generally stronger actors than singers (though no one is vocally inadequate). As Pseudolus, Matthew Lewis Johnson shines throughout, landing all of the jokes in the style of a true vaudevillian clown, being a solid foundation at the center of all of the chaos around him, and providing fine singing. At times, he sounds much like Nathan Lane, who starred in the 1996 revival of the show, in his delivery. Jeremy Dubin is a hilariously nebbish Hysterium, a too-eager-to-please slave who is a ball of nervousness, and recent CCM grad Gabe Wrobel is vocally impressive as the uber-vain military commander Miles Gloriosus. Kelcey Steele (Hero) and Courtney Lucien (Philia) are the young would-be lovers, and are strong vocally.
Also doing well in support are Jim Hopkins (Senex), Kelly Mengelkoch (Domina), Darnell Pierre Benjamin (Marcus Lycus), and Joneal Joplin (Erronius). And, even though they don't get as much time in the spotlight, the young actors portraying the Proteans and courtesans deserve kudos as well for their contributions.
The scenic design by Shannon Robert consists of a multi-level unit set of three houses on an ancient Roman street. With cartoonish details, some subtle and not so subtle sexual references, and playful elements (including centerstage functioning fountain), the design is perfect for the show. Brian Horton's costumes suitably capture comedic versions of ancient garb, and the lighting by Adam Zeek includes some interesting effects and lights nestled in unexpected spots on stage. The solid sound design by Douglas J. Borntrager allows every word to be clearly heard.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is an accessible and funny show, and a good way for Cincinnati Shakespeare to enter the musical theater world, especially with its emphasis on acting over singing. The creative team has provided a worthwhile production that garners lots of laughs, and the talented cast is game for the madcap antics that ensue.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, through September 29, 2018, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, 1195 Elm Street, Cincinnati\, OH. For more information, visit cincyshakes.com or call 513-381-BARD (2273).