“A Funny Thing…” Ain’t So Funny

By David A. Rosenberg

One tiny thing is terribly wrong with “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Goodspeed Musicals. It ain’t funny although, at the performance caught, some audience members thought so.

The program quotes composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim as saying about the show, “There are only two or three jokes – the rest is comic situation.” At the risk of invoking the Master’s ire, one can make a case that “Forum,” with a book by experts Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, is split between jokes and comic situation.

But director/choreographer Ted Pappas seems to be of the school that whatever works should be tinkered with. He managed to mangle the great “Kiss Me, Kate” at Goodspeed in 1994, so why not again? He and most of his cast quite forget the rule that farce must be embedded first in reality, then in exaggeration. You need comedians for this kind of folderol.

Instead, actors rush about frantically, mugging like mad, sweating profusely. Sure, the audience responds to the physical stuff. Maybe they’re not actually listening since they crack nary a smile when a courtesan, confronting a eunuch’s unexpected baritone, admonishes, “Don’t you lower your voice to me.” Also falling like an anvil is this exchange:

“My father will turn in his grave.”

“Your father is alive.”

“This will kill him.”

“Forum” is the one about Pseudolus, the Roman servant who, wanting to be freed, arranges an elopement between his young master and a paradoxical virginal courtesan. Inventing all sorts of shenanigans, Pseudolus brews a randy husband, a battleaxe wife, a boastful warrior and long-lost children into a stew of “panderers, philanderers, cupidity, timidity, mistakes, fakes, rhymes, mimes, tumblers, grumblers, fumblers, bumblers.”

Based on several 2,000-plus years-old plays by Roman playwright Plautus (who established archetypes that later found their way into Italian commedia dell’arte), “Forum,” if done right, can be hilarious. Its Sondheim score is filled with fantastic rhymes and charming tunes. Although the cleverly alliterative “Pretty Little Picture” has been cut for this production, we’re left with the show-stopping “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” the rousing “Comedy Tonight,” the sly “Impossible,” the lilting “Lovely.”

At Goodspeed, however, it doesn’t help that, as Hysterium, John Scherer’s timing is off or that, as Pseudolus, Adam Heller lacks a harlequin’s scheming immorality. It doesn’t help that some of the singing is flat, that the chase scene lacks spontaneity, that Ron Wisniski’s Lycus is too noisy, that Tintinabula’s dance is not noisy at all, killing that joke.

Some accomplishments stand out. Tops is David Wohl as Senex, the dirty old man pantalone figure. Dry and sardonic, Wohl (who seems to be channeling the role’s originator, the incomparable David Burns) demonstrates what made this show so delirious the first time around. As braggart captain Miles Gloriosus, Nat Chandler has a glorious voice and the appropriate swagger. As beautiful but dumb courtesan Philia, Emily Thompson sings refreshingly. And the physical production is cheery.

It’s bad enough that professional regional theaters, feeling an economic pinch, trot out classics familiar to every community theater and high school in the land to attract audiences. Still, it must be possible to put new shells on old chestnuts without discarding the meat inside.

 

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