|Donald Cleland and Stan Yeend|
By Tina Arth
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the classic comedy that earned Best Musical/Best Author honors at the 1962 Tony Awards, is an ambitious undertaking to close HART’s season. Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics provide a perfect complement to the utterly silly book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, perhaps better known for writing TV sitcoms (Gelbart created the TV version of M*A*S*H), and the pacing of the jokes is reminiscent of the one-liner sitcom style.
HART’s Forum succeeds on many levels, and provides an abundance of laughs for the audience, even though the overall production is uneven – when it is good, it is very, very good, but there are a few features that are somewhat jarring. The show is Director Aaron Morrow’s first foray into directing a musical, and he showed excellent judgment by adding two veterans, musical director Alice Dalrymple and choreographer Linda Anderson, to his team. The vocal ensemble work and most of the solo performances are strong, and many of the dance routines are surprisingly engaging (especially considering that there are only a couple of real dancers in the cast).
Forum is the 100% farcical tale of the freedom-seeking Pseudolus, a Roman slave in the household of Senex, his wife Domina, and their naïve son Hero. Senex and Domina have temporarily left the head slave, Hysterium, in charge of the household (including guarding Hero’s virtue). Hero has fallen for the Philia, a lovely but dim Cretan virgin living next door in the house of the flesh-merchant Marcus Lycus. Pseudolus promises to procure Philia for his young master in exchange for his freedom - but soon learns that Philia’s contract has been sold to Miles Gloriosus, a mighty Roman captain. Pseudolus tells Marcus Lycus that Philia has brought a deadly plague from Crete, and convinces Marcus to release the girl to his custody in order to protect the rest of the household. Before Hero and Philia can escape, word comes that Miles Gloriosus is coming to claim his bride. Pseudolus plans to give Philia a sleeping potion, then convince Miles Gloriosus that she has died of the plague – but Philia disappears, and a frantic Hysterium is dragged into service as a stand-in corpse, complete with wig, make-up, and virginal gown. Through a series of farcically implausible coincidences, everything works out just fine, fulfilling the show’s initial promise of comedy tonight.
So – what works? Definitely Stan Yeend as Pseudolus – from his first moment on stage in “Comedy Tonight” he produces just the right mix of cheerful egocentrism, cunning, and wheedling, and his vocals are as flawless as his comic timing. Tanner Morton does a fine job as Hysterium, and he works the character’s many moods, from bootlicking head slave to quivering faux corpse, with several interesting stops along the way. The pairing of real-life couple Aubrey Slaughter and Trevor Winder as Philia and Hero is inspired – Slaughter is, as she so blithely (and beautifully) sings, astonishingly lovely, and Winder pulls off his character’s boyish enthusiasm without a hitch.
The part of the befuddled Erroneous might have been written for Donald Cleland, although he plays his first tour around the Seven Hills of Rome so broadly that there is little room for him to grow more exhausted on subsequent trips. Two of the six courtesans are truly outstanding – Kate Barrett’s feline Vibrata and the agile, undulating Amelia Michaels as Tintinabula – both completely command the stage during their solo spots. The casting of Diana LoVerso as Marcus Lycus clearly demonstrates that, when gender is really irrelevant, it can be ignored – her singing and dancing add immeasurably to the ensemble work, and she is every bit the slimy and lecherous merchant required for the role. Finally, the geometrical precision and attention to detail in William Crawford’s set is a superb touch that really sets the stage.
What doesn’t work? Primarily, two unfortunate casting decisions. The show’s authors worked hard to cram their show full of gags, and there really was no reason to try to shoehorn in more running jokes by making the muscular courtesan Gymnasia a large, slightly grimy and absurdly wigged and painted man. Similarly, casting a very small man as the mighty Miles Gloriosus just doesn’t work. Both John Knowles and Linh Nguyen are solid performers, and both they and the audience deserve better. In addition, the hard-working Proteans seem a little chaotic – perhaps a little less running, leaping and jumping would give them and the audience a rest. The costuming is very uneven – some of the Roman robes, gowns, and military attire hit just the right note, but a few characters look like they have been garbed for an elementary school play – and no matter what lurks on Morton’s upper body, he needs to lose the blue t-shirt under his virginal gown!
On balance, the good far outweighs the awkward, and I had no trouble joining the opening night audience in their enthusiastic laughter and applause. Bumpy ride or not, HART’s Forum is a terribly funny show and deserves appreciative audiences to fill the house.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through Sunday, June 16th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.