By Lynn Venhaus
Once upon a time, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” was the gold standard of a playful musical comedy, crafted by skilled vaudevillians with the early musicality of Stephen Sondheim, who would mature into a bona fide theatrical titan. But 61 years since its debut, as seen through a modern lens, it doesn’t have the same pop it once did.
Nevertheless, New Line Theatre’s latest interpretation has several main performers nimble at slapstick and well-versed in comic timing, and the ensemble is spirited in its farcical delivery.
They try mightily to earn laughs, and it mostly succeeds – except for some problematic “frozen in time” dialogue and lyrics. Case in point – “Bring Me My Bride,” with the line: “I have no time to lose, there are towns to plunder, temples to burn and women to abuse.”
OK, I know, it’s supposed to be jokey and satirical, but…And yes, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” is cringy, no matter how many clever rhymes.
This 1962 smash hit was Sondheim’s first show as composer and lyricist, after breaking through as lyricist to Leonard Bernstein on “West Side Story” in 1957 and Jule Styne on “Gypsy” in 1959.
Patterned after Borscht Belt schtick and burlesque back in the day, plus a nod to its centuries-old comic roots, the bawdy material doesn’t bother some folks while others find sexual innuendo offensive.
The book, written by Burt Schevelove (“No, No Nanette”) and Larry Gelbart, creator of “M*A*S*H” who wrote for “Caesar’s Hour” (1954-57), the successor to legendary Sid Caesar’s writing stable on “Your Show of Shows,” “Forum” recalls variety show sketches du jour, often centering on nubile women as sex objects and other stereotypes.
The basic premise is taken from playwright Plautus (251 – 183 B.C.) In ancient Rome, a wily slave, desperate to earn his freedom, wants to hook up a virgin courtesan with his young master, but she has been sold to warrior Miles Gloriosus, who will arrive soon. In the meantime, another neighbor, Erronius, returns after searching for his two children, who were kidnapped by pirates.
Even with changing comedic tastes, people who have enjoyed this musical before, either in the audience or as players, look back at it fondly, because it does need a cohesive team to convey the zaniness, and that’s where the fun can be found.
Lively performers Kent Coffel, as crafty Pseudolus, and Chris Moore, as worrywart Hysterium, hatch schemes that get sillier and stickier, and mistaken identities are a key element to the humor, so is crossdressing.
The principal singers are all gifted vocalists, especially Ann Hier Brown, who plays the shrew Domina, Hero’s mom. She does effectively turn the tables on “That Dirty Old Man.”
The score’s highlight is the vigorous opening “Comedy Tonight,” a can’t miss showy number. Tragedy can wait, are you ready for some fluff?
Sarah Wilkinson, memorable in New Line’s “Nine” last March, is a sweet Philia and Ian McCreary is an earnest Hero, as the young lovers everyone is rooting for, despite all the wacky complications that ensue. Their duet of “Lovely,” is well, lovely.
A standout is Danny Brown as the swaggering brute Miles Gloriosus, surprising in his robust delivery and rugged appearance.
Without firmly landing punchlines, Robert Doyle seems miscast as the lecherous Senex and Gary Cox is the befuddled Erronius, who has returned after searching for his two children, who were kidnapped by pirates.
Lending support are Jason Blackburn as Marcus Lycus and Nathan Hakenewerth, Brittany Kohl Hester, and Aarin Kamphoefner as the Proteans.
Co-directors Scott Miller and Chris Kernan have fluidly staged the performers to maximize the madcap movements required, especially in frantic chase scenes.
And Rob Lippert has designed a three-house set that makes entrances and exits breezy, with lighting design by Matt Stuckel and sound design by Ryan Day.
Eileen Engel’s costume design may appear simple, with widespread togas and sandals on hand, but considering the character disguises, she had to duplicate outfits in various sizes so that the apparel would elicit laughs, too.
The conductor/keyboard player is Matthew Kauzlarich, with Kelly Austermann on reeds, Tyler Davis on cello, Ron Foster on trumpet, John Gerdes on brass, Adam Levin on trombone and Clancy Newell on percussion. Joe Simpson is music director.
“Forum” closes out New Line’s 31st season, and they have tackled demanding Stephen Sondheim works before (“Anyone Can Whistle,” “Assassins,” “Company,” “Into the Woods,” “Passion,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” and “Sweeney Todd”),
The original 1962 production of “Forum” was nominated for eight Tony Awards and won six, including best musical, producer, book, and director. Multiple Broadway revivals were well-received, in 1972 with Phil Silvers and in 1996 with Nathan Lane (and later in the run, with Whoopi Goldberg. All three actors who have opened in the role of Pseudolus on Broadway have won Best Actor Tony Awards (Zero Mostel, Silvers and Lane).
This throwback has a cast merrily cavorting on stage, zipping along to keep it from sagging, that helps carry it across the finish line. I just wish the material was fresher. This only works as a period piece, recreating an outdated style.
In recent years, New Line’s impressive choices have moved the needle on local musical offerings – especially “Something Rotten!” “Urinetown,” “Be More Chill,” “Lizzie,” “Head Over Heels,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Heathers,” and others.
New Line Theatre’s production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is from June 1 to June 24, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis, in the Grand Center Arts District.
Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students/seniors on the first Thursday; and $30 for adults and $25 for students/seniors for all other performances. To charge tickets by phone, call MetroTix at 314-534-1111 or visit the Fox Theatre box office or the MetroTix website.
Discounts are available for high school students (check Facebook page for code), educators and military personnel, and college students are offered the chance to get a free seat (10 per performance) They are available only at the door, and subject to availability.
Cover Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.