Regional Reviews: San Diego
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Also see Bill's review of Queens
Yearning to become free, the slave Pseudolus (Omri Schein) will do practically anything to become his own man. His master, Hero (Chris M. Kauffmann), falls in love with a virgin courtesan named Philia (Noelle Marion) who lives in a brothel owned by the greedy Marcus Lycus (David McBean). Hero agrees to give Pseudolus his freedom if the slave can find a way for him and Philia to live a safe and happy life. None of them are prepared for the chaotic situations that lie ahead.
Controlling all the mayhem onstage is Ellenstein, who expertly handles the slapstick and fast-paced scenarios. Matt Novotny's lighting and Marty Burnett's set are used effectively to depict a Roman spring day, and Elisa Benzoni's costumes reflect the time period, while featuring some humorous touches as well. There are a few moments in act one where yelling is used a little too often for punchlines, but that becomes less of an issue as the night proceeds.
Problems and danger never seem to be absent from the plot. Whenever a situation appears to be solved, other issues still exist or new ones are created, and the evening never feels monotonous. Wordplay, raunchy dialogue and puns in the spirit of vaudeville cleverly add to the lighthearted tone. Some characters, such as Pseudolus and Hero's unhappily married dad Senex (Andrew Ableson), occasionally break the fourth wall in an entertaining fashion. Just as important to the staying power of the 1962 script are Sondheim's melodies.
The songs include ironic gags and showcase the characters' various personalities. Hero gets to express his growing affection for Philia when he sings "Love, I Hear," while Pseudolus' quick-on-his-feet planning is highlighted in "Pretty Little Picture." The band, led by musical director/keyboardist, Ron Councell, bring an upbeat energy when playing the music for songs such as "Lovely," "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," and "I'm Calm." Colleen Kollar Smith's choreography is generally focused on visual wit. Her handling of "Bring Me My Bride," which depicts the narcissism of soldier Miles Gloriosus (Jason Maddy), is one of the funniest sequences of the night, with his various poses and walking serving as a hilarious act one finale.
Everyone in the cast brings a sense of fun, and Schein, as Pseudolus, gets to be slyly intelligent and charismatic. Although "Free" is far from a serious number, Schein sings it in a way that creates empathy for the plight of a slave. Though Pseudolus gets plenty of jokes and standout moments, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is far from a one-man show. Ensemble members such as Kauffmann, Marion, Ableson, McBean, Maddy, Kevin Hafso Koppman and Melinda Gilb each display skillful comic timing and sing smart renditions of Sondheim's songs. Many of the performers have experience singing Sondheim's intricate music, which benefits the production.
North Coast Rep's staging is absent of tragedy, and Ellenstein's summer escape doesn't disappoint.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, through August 12, 2018, at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D, Solana Beach CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $45.00 and can be purchased online at www.northcoastrep.org or by phone at 1-858-481-1055.