Preview: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Players Takes a Trip to the Forum
by Bob McLaughlin and John Lieder
Here’s a riddle: What do you get when you cross high culture with low comedy? Classic literature with vaudeville yuks? The answer is easy: you get that celebrated Broadway musical hit, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which will be Community Players’ first musical of the 2018-2019 season.
Forum focuses on a slave in ancient Rome, Pseudolus, who will do anything to win his freedom, and by anything we mean set his master’s son up with a courtesan, finagle the courtesan away from her owner, convince his master that the courtesan is a new maid, lie to a not-very-bright-but-hot-tempered army captain, persuade a harmless old man who’s looking for his children, stolen in infancy by pirates, to run around the seven hills of Rome seven times, make his best friend dress up as a girl, and on and on and on. If all that seems complicated, don’t worry, it makes sense in performance—and if it doesn’t, who cares? It’s still breathtakingly, rib-achingly funny.
With a book by Bert Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (who created the TV version of M*A*S*H) and score by Stephen Sondheim (the first show for which he wrote both music and lyrics), Forum opened at Broadway’s Alvin Theater on May 8, 1962, to strong reviews. It eventually won the Tony Award for Best Musical (though Sondheim wasn’t even nominated for Best Score) and ran for 964 performances, still the longest Broadway run for any Sondheim production. The original cast included such comedy veterans as Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, David Burns, John Carradine, and Raymond Walburn. Forum has been revived on Broadway twice: in 1972 with Phil Silvers, and in 1996 with Nathan Lane. (Sadly, it was also made into a nightmarishly awful movie in 1966.) It has also been performed around the world and in just about every high school and community theater in the country, including twice before at Community Players, in 1982 and 2000, directed both times by Bruce Parrish, who plays Pseudolus’s master, Senex, this time around.
Surprisingly, given such long-term success, the original production had a very rocky out-of-town tryout. Audiences in Washington sat stone-faced while the jokes and songs flew past them. Desperate, the creators called in Jerome Robbins, the director-choreographer of West Side Story and many other classics, who spotted the problem right away. The director, venerable George Abbott, had wanted an opening number that was charming and tuneful, so Sondheim wrote just such a song, “Love Is in the Air.” Robbins quickly noted that a charming and tuneful song didn’t prepare the audience for the breakneck farce that was to come; the song made them expect a totally different kind of show. So Sondheim wrote the now-classic “Comedy Tonight.” Robbins staged it, and by the time the show got to New York, audiences were laughing their heads off, and everyone involved had learned a lesson about the importance of the opening number.
Our production is led by Dave Montague in the role of Pseudolus, the slave who connives to get his freedom. Dave is joined by a wonderful cast, obviously enjoying themselves in this “funny thing.” Nick Benson is Hysterium, the chief slave in the house of Senex. You may recall that Montague and Benson also paired up in our 2015 production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with hilarious effect. They are equally hilarious in this production, each displaying expert physical humor and spot on comic timing.
The venerable Bruce Parrish is right in his comedic element as that “dirty old man” Senex. Nancy Nickerson plays his nagging, distrustful wife, Domina. Hero, the young, naive son of Senex and Domina, is played by Noah White. His love interest is the lovely virgin Philia, played by Alyssa Pacheco. White and Pacheco each have beautifully clear voices and shine in their solos and duets.
Nathan Gaik is Marcus Lycus, the neighbor of Senex who runs the house full of lovely courtesans next door. The courtesans are Jessica Dolan, Ashleigh Feger, Latrisha Green, Darraugh Griffin, Erica O’Neill, and Alyssa Rainey.
Jeff Ready is convincingly doddering as the elderly, nearly blind neighbor Erronius. Alex Knightwright portrays the braggadocious Roman soldier Miles Gloriosus with much bravado and a resonant baritone voice.
Last, and by all means not least, are the Proteans, played by Aaron Thomas, Brian Yager, and Marita Landreth. These three expertly and enthusiastically play multiple roles as servants, eunuchs, solders, and citizens. They don’t get many lines, but they get a lot of stage time and are much fun to watch.
The entire play takes place on a street in Rome in front of the houses of Erronius, Senex, and Marcus Lycus. The set depicting the three houses is masterfully designed and built by Nick Kilgore.
Cristen Monson is director, and Scott Myers is producer. Judy Stroh is stage manager with assistance from Christian West. Rusty Russell is music director, and Missy Freese is the choreographer. Megan Renner is costumer. Dan Virtue is lighting director, and Gary Ploense is sound director. Bridgette Richard is in charge of properties with assistance from Jason Cook. Anthony Overton is soundtrack operator, and Wendi Ayers is house manager.
As the opening number tells us, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum offers “something gawdy, something bawdy, something for every bawdy.” The pay-what-you-can Preview performance is Thursday, November 1 with regular performances November 2-4, 9-11, and 16-18. The are no Thursday performances apart from the Preview.
Photos by John Lieder