A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Trey Compton.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Robby May with Hally Cianfarini, and Ruth Kennedy ; photo provided
"The situation’s fraught - fraughter than I thought."
"Comedy Tonight" reads the program and comedy it usually is when a company presents this classic 1962 Broadway hit. This is the third production of this show I have seen over the past three seasons and some very adventurous work was done for the Williamstown Theatre Festival production with its all-male cast, a basic farcical approach was taken at the Weston Playhouse up in Vermont and now, at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY, we have a practical, stageworthy and somewhat loveable edition of the show.
There are many elements to this American classic, based on the Roman classics and the equally genuine and relevant elements of French farce. Plautus, whose comedy was low and not overly intellectual, would approve the use of his characters and his story-telling basics. Shakespeare, who could cater his humor to the masses and still enthrall the aristocracy, would not be disturbed by the director’s use of asides and musical moments to address the audience directly. Moliere would say there are enough doors (and the total number of entrances here) and that would be the consensus of all the writers of French and British farces right up through Philip King whose chase comedy, See How They Run, is now gracing the stage in Pittsfield, MA for Barrington Stage Company.
Director Trey Compton has the aid of a cast that seems willing to try anything. Shaun Rice who has been amusing, to say the least, in the last few shows here emerges a winner in the secondary role of Marcus Lycus, Procurer to the rich and famous. When he joins three other men for the final chorus of "Everybody Ought To Have a Maid," he brings a new lightness to the work.
Similarly Mikey LoBalsamo in the role of head slave Hysterium provides ample laughter and a touch of pathos as he tries to stay afloat during the scheming of his fellow slave, Pseudolus. LoBalsamo has a nice way of moving through the most insulting and assaulting moments here, and he even makes a slightly convincing dead heroine with his fake breasts floating in opposite directions and his hairy legs protruding from a high-slit gown.
Jordan Wolfe’s young Hero (named Hero) is both charming and talented, singing well and handling the look of innocence with a certain elan. As his lady love, Philia, Maggie Carr emerges an interesting stand-in for Kristen Chenowith, a look-alike with a similar voice, just not as pitch-true. Her take on innocence, though, could not be more perfect. Carr plays the perfect virgin and gets every laugh in the script.
John M. Trainor makes the most of his multiple stage crosses, even getting an exit hand for his sly characterization of the old and doddering Erronius. He stops the show cold three times and each time gets more and more laughter from an audience already anticipating him by the end of the show.
Joe Phillips is a decent Senex and Amy Fiebke looks and sounds the role of Domina, his wife. Her singing could be better in her one, comic, solo but even there she gets the meaning and the grit into the song; she just misses some of the notes and all of the humorous changes.
Nick Miller is a beautiful body with a decent voice and talent that doesn’t range comfortably into self-parody which is what Miles Gloriosus needs to be truly successful. Here is the ultimate ego stretched to the breaking point but Miller only takes him into a comfort zone which is just not enough for us to enjoy that altered ego.
The three Proteans, Ben Katagiri, John Cardenas, and Jed Krivisky do what they’re told to do and some of it works and some of it doesn’t. The women do very well with their various courtesan roles.
In the musical moments this company generally comes through decently, except where noted above. In the comic interpretation there could be better timing, better realization of the out-sized intentions in the script.
What holds the show together is the performance of Robby May as Pseudolus. He is a tall man, a big man with large features and a fine voice. He makes his songs a pleasure to hear, a complete remove from the original performance by Zero Mostel. Personally I like this sort of a take on the character. The more I like Pseudolus the better and the more I hope for his success in getting through a lot of trouble, most of his own making, is only to the good of the show. May has charm, talent, a good voice and a funny way of manipulating his facial features. Even before his song "Free" I was hoping he’d achieve that goal.
If May is the center of the company, Compton is its peripheral control. As director, fight director and choreographer, the look of the final product is clearly and cleanly his own. This director is good at many things and he sees the humor and tries to drag it out of a young company with too little time to rehearse and get it right. His use of dance movement is fine but not perfect yet. His fight sequences are loudly fun but funny in an odd way. What that leaves us is a show without a context but lightened by funny lines and superb character songs. Compton has brought much to the table, but what a wonderful Hysterium he might have been and might someday be.
The costumes created or pulled by Alyssa Couturier are divine. Allen E. Phelps lighting had some most peculiar and interesting transitions, but his use of color for different moments only heightened the theatrical splendor of the performances. Abe Phelps has pulled together a nearly perfect, "road company" set that adds to the show through its stability which seems unexpected when you first look at the set. His usual eye for detail comes through in the footlights which were a wonderful touch.
Kevin Francis Finn does a nice enough job with the music considering the limitations with which he works here.
If you’re like me you always go to the theater prepared to be entertained and expecting to enjoy every minute of the show. I’ve seen this play so often in the past few years that I could probably go on the road and play any role. Nevertheless this is always a welcome addition to any season. This performance is of that ilk.
Would I say "go see this?" Well, I would. Might I have reservations about it, indeed I would. How would I resolve this dilemma of going and not going, well, I wouldn’t bother. It’s the sort of show where each audience member decides how he/she would recommend it. It would be for each of us to bring our own baggage into the seat with us and make his or her own mind up about the qualities presented to us. I would see this again, but I happen to love this musical with an irrational love. You might feel the same way.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum plays at the Theater Barn, at 654 Route 20 west of New Lebanon, NY through September 2. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go to their website at www.theaterbarn.com.