Forum: Funny but not Flawless

By Geary Danihy

There’s “something for everyone” – even if you don’t like pirates -- in Goodspeed Opera House’s current production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, an uproarious blend of vaudeville, burlesque, farce and musical comedy, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart.

The musical’s nearly universal appeal owes much to the fact that its plot and characters have been knocking them into the aisles for well over 2,000 years, for the basis of Forum is, as would be expected, ancient Roman comedy, with its stock characters – the wise and wily slave, the bewildered father, the domineering mother, the randy son, the scheming seller of slaves and the boastful military man – all thrown together into a plot of humorous complications successfully resolved.

The wise and wily slave in this case is Pseudolus (Adam Heller), who will do just about anything (including collecting mare’s sweat) to obtain his freedom. The musical basically rises or falls on this character, and I’m happy to say that Heller ably fills the sandals once worn by the likes of Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane. While standing still (which is not often), Heller still looks as if he is plotting something. There’s a lot of the Borsch-Belt comic in his take on the character, what with knowing, Oy Vey looks at the audience and deprecating body language. There’s also a bit of Buster Keaton in his portrayal, given the occasional soulful, soundless sighs and physical double- and triple-takes.

As Pseudolus connives and machinates, Hysterium (John Scherer), the “good” house slave, is bewitched, bothered and bewildered. Frenetic to a fault, Scherer is initially a bit over the top, but as the musical proceeds and the plot thickens, his hysteria becomes well warranted and culminates in a delightful reprise of “Lovely” as he warms to the idea of playing the part of a beautiful dead virgin.

In a nice pairing, we have the licentious Marcus Lycus (Ron Wisniski), the antic purveyor of female flesh, living next door to Pseudolus’s master, Senex (David Wohl) and his wife, Domina (Mary Gutzi). Wisniski is all manic avariciousness – he is Fagin to his girls’ “orphans” -- while Wohl is deadpan dominated. Wohl’s take on the henpecked husband, perhaps encouraged by director and choreographer Ted Pappas, is all slow-burn and well-considered suffering. Thus, he gets laughs by twitching an eye and milking pregnant pauses, an approach especially effective when he is working against the demonstrative Gutzi who, bedecked in a Medusa wig, manages to create threats of castration with each wide-eyed glare directed at the audience.

Also glaring at the audience, albeit with an arched eyebrow, is the consummate military-macho-puff daddy, Miles Gloriosus (Nat Chandler). This role is written, from start to finish, as macho-cubed. Chandler does a nice job here, but there’s something missing – he’s brash, but you just don’t get the feeling he believes in the swagger. Actually, there’s a certain tentativeness to this Miles, an alpha-male who’s looking over his shoulder and hearing footsteps. 
 
Then we have the young lovers – Hero (Sam Pinkleton) and Philia (Emily Thompson). Pinkleton is convincing as a youth besotted by first love (or lust) – his eyes gleam and his legs quiver – but Thompson, as Philia, may well be “sweet and warm,” but she has a hard time pulling off “winsome” or, for that matter, selling “vacuous” – Philia’s signature quality. There’s just too much intelligence emanating from Thompson’s eyes for us to believe that she can’t even remember Hero’s name.

In the end, in plays and musicals such as Forum there needs to be a definite build to the controlled craziness, with the final moments a whirl of slamming doors, fast entrances and exits, unexpected meetings and stumbling, bumbling confusion. This Forum attempts this, but it just doesn’t work. It’s all a matter of timing, and the timing is off in the final frantic moments – too many seconds when there should have been split-seconds.

And yet, you leave the theater with a smile, a big smile. There are flaws in this production, but they weigh lightly against the overall exuberance and comic intensity of the evening. If nothing else, you will come away firmly believing that “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.”

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs through Sunday, Nov. 29. For tickets or more information call 860-873-8668 or go to www.goodspeed.org.

This review originally appeared in The Norwalk Citizen-News.  

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