THEATER REVIEW ‘A FUNNY THING HAPPENED . . . ’ : Still Funny : There’s still ‘something for everyone’ in the PCPA Theaterfest version of the 1962 Stephen Sondheim musical.
In 1962, a young lyricist with an already impressive series of collaborations under his belt got his first shot at writing both the lyrics and music for a Broadway musical--a gaudy, bawdy farce with an ingeniously twisted plot that lit up the Great White Way with its frenetic Roman Scandals. The composer was Stephen Sondheim, the show was “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and the rest is history.
Yet, despite innumerable restagings from sophisticated New York venues to dinner theaters in Palookaville, there’s not a historical cobweb to be found in the PCPA Theaterfest summer revival of “Forum.” The show plays with all the freshness and vitality of a first-run outing.
When the opening number promises “Something for everyone, a comedy tonight,” it’s an accurate prophecy. This one really delivers.
Part of the success lies in Director-Choreographer Brad Carroll’s ability to sustain the fever-pitched goofiness intended by the show’s creators, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart.
Set amid a whimsical vision of everyday life in ancient Rome (where philandering patricians live next door to courtesan-peddlers), their adaptation of the comic plays of Plautus becomes a series of complications arising from the ploys of a wily slave to obtain his freedom.
When his young master protests that no slave has ever been set free, Pseudolus (Charlie Bachmann) challenges him to “be the first--start a trend.” But Pseudolus only makes headway when he learns of his master’s hopeless infatuation for a virgin courtesan in the house of Lycus, the flesh peddler next door. Bachmann’s performance hits exactly the right note of comic guile laced with good-natured fun as he schemes to unite the two lovebirds in exchange for his freedom. Unfortunately, the courtesan has already been sold to a fierce warrior (Sam Zeller), who is expected to collect his new bride any moment.
The production slips into high gear when Pseudolus persuades his whining fellow slave Hysterium (Gregg Coffin) to pose as the bride while he fends off the warrior with a series of excuses--the poor girl has the plague, it seems, to which she ultimately succumbs. Coffin pulls out all the stops in one of the most frightening displays of feminine allure ever staged. It’s the finest example of sustained hilarity and impeccable timing I’ve seen in years. His doubtful charms and even more dubious anatomy are abetted by Judith A. Ryerson’s inspired costuming, which leaves all too little Hysterium to the imagination.
While there are plenty of well-delivered one-liners (“You never learn--you’ll be a eunuch all your life”), most of the humor here is situational. Director Carroll claims his model was the classic “I Love Lucy” style of comedy, and it’s easy to see the influence, especially in the single-minded intensity with which the characters pursue their increasingly ludicrous aims.
“Forum” is the only Sondheim musical in which the songs’ sophistication actually relieves the show’s momentum instead of furthering it. The pauses provided by snappy tunes such as “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” are like coming up for air. Yet even amid the silliness are foretastes of the mature composer who would change the face of modern musical theater.
The bubble-headed charm of the young lovers Hero and Philia (who warbles “All I Am Is Lovely”) would surface again in “Sweeney Todd’s” Anthony and Johanna. The pompous warrior was the first in a recurring theme of shallow masculine bravado (Count Magnus in “A Little Night Music” or the princes in “Into the Woods”). And, of course, Sondheim’s dazzling use of language and wordplay are an enduring signature throughout his work.
Fortunately for us, PCPA’s “Forum” fits Sondheim’s score like a seamless tunic. Head on up and rest on the laurels.
* WHERE AND WHEN
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Performed at the Solvang Festival Theatre Friday, Tuesday, Thursday, Aug. 18, 24 and 30, Sept. 5, 9, 10, 17 and 18. Evening performances at 8:30 are $17 and $15 Fridays and Saturdays and $16 and $13 Sundays through Thursdays. Call (800) 221-9469 for reservations or further information.