A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, playing through August 12th at North Coast Repertory Theatre is a colorful and fun summer trip to Ancient Rome, as told with a small detour through vaudeville for style. The play even announces its intentions at the top of the show “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight” just so there is no confusion.
The show revolves around the adventures of Pseudolus (Omri Schein), a slave to a young man named Hero (Chris M. Kauffman) who has fallen in love at first sight with a Philia (Noelle Marion) a virgin he spied through the window of the courtesans house next door, run by Marcus Lycus (a funny and fussy David McBean). To the other side of the family manor is the house of an old man who has left to find his two children lost in infancy to pirates.
Hero’s parents leave for the day, putting lead house slave Hysterium (a delightfully funny Kevin Hafso Koppman) in charge of keeping everything running smoothly and to keep Hero away from those courtesans. Hero promises Pseudolus his freedom if he can help him win the heart of the mystery girl. With his dream of freedom so close at hand, throw in a pompous Roman soldier named Miles Gloriosus (a very funny Jason Maddy), some leggy courtesans, mischief, and bawdy wordplay and puns, and this all comes together as a perfect set up for broad vaudevillian comedy and hijinks. (To be fair, this plot is thanks to Roman playwright Plautus.)
It is the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim that really add make this musical sing (I couldn’t resist.) From the high energy opening number of “Comedy Tonight” to the illustrative “Pretty Little Picture, to “I’m Calm” the clever lyrics gives all of the information and the extra oomph to this show. The alliteration, the rhyme schemes, the clever and stylistic form combined with musical function make these songs shine bright.
This is a strong cast full of heavy comedic hitters, who bring a sense energy and whimsy along with comedic timing. Schein as Pseudolus keeps his craftiness finely honed, and his manipulation of everyone endearing with such a worthy goal as freedom to be won.
With lots of character entrances and exits, plot twists and escapades this is not an easy show to do, or keep balanced between comedic shtick and vaudevillian style. There is a greater degree of difficulty in a smaller theatre, both logistically and tonally without feeling overwrought. This show mostly feels consistent in tone, but sometimes feels a bit overblown instead of clever.
Written in 1962, not all of the jokes in this style have aged as others, including the song ‘Everybody Ought To Have a Maid.” While performed delightfully in the show, with lyrics about a beautiful girl in someone’s employ being gleefully anticipated for her “wriggling in the anteroom, jiggling in the dining room, giggling in the living room, wiggling in the other rooms” it feels more lyrically flat than funny in this current climate.
All of the mischief and mayhem plays out under the direction of David Ellenstein, on a brightly colored set by Marty Burnett, with equally colorful costumes by Elisa Benzoni.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM may not be an often produced piece because of the degree of difficulty, but the production at the North Coast Rep brings a quirky and entertaining summer musical in Ancient Rome – no passport or time machine required.
For ticket and show time information go to www.northcoastrep.org