Saturday, November 21, 2009

Review of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at Goodspeed Opera House

Two fun facts about Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, receiving a lively and entertaining production at the Goodspeed Opera House. One, this was the first show with lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim (he was only the lyricist for West Side Story and Gypsy). Two, even though the original production ran for just under 1,000 performances and garnered a number of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Actor, and Director, Sondheim was not even nominated for Best Score. All these decades later—Forum was first produced in 1962—this omission seems even more absurd when you listen to a cast recording. What better opening number is there besides “Comedy Tonight?” How about the clowning daffiness of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid?” These songs, plus “”Lovely,” “Free,” “I’m Calm,” and “Impossible,” in the hands of the comedic ensemble onstage at the Goodspeed make for a delightful and buoyant theatrical treat.

Forum is normally a tour de force for the actor playing the lead character, Pseudolus, the self-absorbed, ever-plotting slave. In fact, every actor who has played the role on Broadway--Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane—has won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a musical. Even Jason Alexander, who performed as Pseudolus in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway won the Best Actor Tony. Taking the reins of Pseudolus at Goodspeed is Adam Heller, who mugs with the best of them as he schemes and connives his way to freedom. While Heller is clearly at home with the burlesque nature of the show he doesn’t elevate his performance to where Pseudolus is the top banana. Instead he becomes part of the very fine ensemble of comedic talent that includes David Wohl as the hen-pecked Senex; John Scherer as head slave, Hysterium; and Ron Wisniski as Marcus Lycus, peddler of flesh. Does this set-up hurt the production? The answer is a resounding no. However, a more over-the-top performance by Heller would have enhanced the musical.

The other performances worth noting are Mark Baker, as the creepily daft, Erronius; Nat Chandler as the pompous captain, Miles Gloriosus; Sam Pinkleton as the good-hearted, but naive, Hero; and Emily Thompson as the beautiful courtesan, Philia.

The plot of Forum, filled with mistaken identities, tomfoolery, and double entendres, is a first-class effort by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Likewise, Stephen Sondheim’s score while lightweight to some degree, nonetheless provides a playful and melodic series of satisfying songs.

Director/choreographer Ted Pappas keeps the pace fast, frenzied, and farcical as he joyfully brings out the humor and silliness of the production.

The scenic design by James Noone, along with the costumes by Martha Bromelmeier, are colorful and carnival-like, setting a mirthful mood for the audience right from the start.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, an entertaining and comic diversion, now at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 29th.