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A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum

A Comedy Tonight

By Vladimir Zelevnsky

Presented by the Musical Theater Guild

Directed by Sheridan Zabel

With Stephen Peters ’92, Seth Bisen-Hersh ’01, Anand Sarwate ’01, Jessica Hinel ’02, Matt Brown ’02, Irene Wilson ’98, Bruce Applegate ’94, Ryan Caveney ’96, Ira Gerhardt ’99, Yamini Jagannath ’01 Sara Jo Elice ’01, Stephanie Sharo ’99, Welkin Pope ’00, Teresa Raine ’98, Stacy O’Connor ’00, Corey Gerritsen ’02 Aaron Moronez ’99 Kevin Choi ’01, and John van der Meer ’72

I’m glad that I’m not a professional art critic. If I were one, and I saw something like the latest Musical Theater Guild production, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I would have to frown, and start a sophisticated elaboration on why this production doesn’t work. I would mention that the production lacks a cohesive style, that the tempo is uneven, and that there is very little internalized acting to be seen, with the cast pretending rather than acting.

The great thing is that nothing of the above matters. The opening song proclaims the show’s only ambition -- to be funny. And funny it is, wildly so, completely sweeping aside most of the serious-minded objections.

The story, taking place in Ancient Rome, is set in motion when a middle-aged couple, Senex (Matt Brown) and Domina (Irene Wilson), leave for vacation. It is left to their slave-in-chief Hysterium (Seth-Bisen Hersh) to take care of the household while their only son Hero (Anand Sawarte) is in charge of their other slave, Pseudolus (Steve Peters). The thing is that Pseudolus wants to be free -- and he is willing to do anything to further his aim. That includes obtaining the affections of Philia (Jessica Hinel), the girl next door, for Hero. The problem is that the house next door is a house of courtesans, owned by gregarious Marcus Lycus (Ryan Caveney), and Philia, being a virgin, would cost a pretty penny. Or, instead of the money, some devious plotting.

So Pseudolus rushes headfirst into intrigue and manipulations, with things getting more and more out of hand at every turn of the plot. Pseudolus covers his tracks with perpetual lies, making things increasingly more complicated and funny with each step. Soon, all of the city is involved in the crazy plot, from the courtesans next door to the hapless Hysterium to the valiant Roman general Miles Gloriosus (Bruce Applegate). Miles is hopelessly infatuated with himself, and this love is requited and has no adversaries.

The plot is ingenious, and the MTG production goes squarely for the plot. It’s assuredly paced, with every single twist being clear both in its origins and consequences. Every actor works directly for the audience, with very little genuine or realistic emotion. The result ranges from merely amusing to truly hilarious. It’s also very impressively mounted, with lots of physical action, some of it downright amazing. The slapstick and pratfalls look effortless and easy, a sure sign of long and painful rehearsals.

Since the production aims at nothing more (and nothing less) than telling a humorous story, it’s a great relief that the production can hold the attention of the audience for all of its two and a half hours.

Most of the credit goes to the creators of the show, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart, but director Sheridan Zabel deserves applause as well. He transforms the amusing literary material into a hilarious comedy. The song “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” is decently written, but in Zabel’s production it gets a simple and elegant twist, becoming funnier every minute.

But when it comes to the music, the production is lacking. The singing is fine with Irene Wilson’s assured and skillful voice being the stand-out achievement. It's the orchestra which is problematic.

I saw the show on the opening night, and the weakness could be chalked down to little rehearsal time. But to tell the truth, the orchestra in Forum is decidedly unimpressive, with neither the solo parts nor the ensemble work being very musical. It's not a good sign when the audience laughs during the overture, especially since it isn't meant to be funny. It comes as a big disappointment, especially after the excellent orchestra work in MTG's last production, She Loves Me.

At least the orchestra is hidden behind the set, so the music doesn’t interfere much with the singing, and it’s only during the purely instrumental portions of the score that it gets distracting.

It would be curious to see Forum with some genuine acting. What if Pseudolus’ love for freedom, Hero and Philia’s love for each other, and Miles’ love for himself would be implicit as well as explicit? Then there might be some more authentic feeling to Forum.

But just by being simply and consistently funny MTG’s production is an impressive achievement indeed. There was a 1966 movie version of this very musical, directed by Richard Lester and with Zero Mostel as Pseudolus. This movie is elaborate, frenzied, incoherent, and in general tries much too hard to please. The MTG production is, on virtually every level, better. Thus the old rule that MTG productions of Sondheim shows are enjoyable still holds.