“Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everybody: Comedy tonight!”

Those who associate the name of Stephen Sondheim with something  sophisticated, something subtle, something dour even (as in Passion) may not recognize the master of complex, reputedly un-hummable melodies and adult angst in Sondheim’s very first show as lyricist AND composer.

With book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is vaudeville / burlesque / farce at its funniest and most outrageous, and Marsha Moode’s Downey Civic Light Opera has put together a sensational production which will titillate and delight audiences who don’t mind more than a bit of bawdiness in their musical theater.

From master comedian Nick Santa Maria’s first entrance as Prologus (an actor undertaking the role of Pseudolus, a slave), no one can doubt that this will be a Broadway classic like no other.  Santa Maria suddenly pops up in the orchestra pit mid-overture to battle musical director Eddy Clement for control of the Downey Civic Light Opera orchestra. Then, using material from his own stand-up routine, Santa Maria segues into nightclub comedian shtick with the front row.  Dominic, Nedra, and Lety were just three opening night audience members who found themselves part of the performance, and Santa Maria hadn’t even gotten to the musical’s first line of dialog yet.

Soon, however, the “Comedy Tonight” is underway, with the entire cast joining in with chorus line kicks, and the melodies and laughs don’t let up until curtain calls.

The year is 200 B.C. and the setting is a street in Rome, in front of the houses of Lycus, Senex, and Erronius.  Lycus owns a stable of gals for rent or purchase, Senex is a henpecked married man with a love-struck son, and elderly Erronius is searching for his two adult children, stolen in infancy by pirates.  Senex’s son Hero wants Philia, Lycus’ newest arrival (and a virgin), and Hero’s slave Pseudolus (Santa Maria) just wants his freedom. Pseudolus concocts a plan which will fulfill both Hero’s and his own dreams, but first he must find a way to prevent Philia’s marriage to Miles Gloriosus, a warrior who has bought her and is on the way to pick up his pulchritudinous purchase.

From the moment that the door to Senex’s house is opened to the wrong person, someone who just happened to give the prearranged signal of three knocks, this Roman comedy of errors gets going in full gear and the mirth and mayhem don’t let up for a second.

Santa Maria, the man to call whenever Nathan Lane is unable to accept a part, gives a comic tour-de-force performance in the role that Zero Mostel originated on Broadway and in the movie, and that in fact Lane assumed in the Broadway revival. With his sly grin and pixyish glee, Santa Maria takes center stage and steals every scene he’s in. (He’s a fine singer to boot.) 

By Pseudolus’ side is fellow slave Hysterium, who more than lives up to his name.  Prone to hysteria, Hysterium is brought to hysterical life by John Massey, a comedian in the great Oliver Hardy tradition.  (At one point, Massey thanked an audience member for being the first to laugh at his Frank Nelson (remember him from the Jack Benny show?) inspired “Ye-e-e-e-s?”  A great opening night moment.

In a 180 degree turn-around from his dark, disturbing, and memorable performance as Judd Fry in last year’s Oklahoma, August Stoten is a flamboyant delight as Lycus, whose bevy of sexy courtesans couldn’t be better performed.  There’s belly dancing Tintinabula (Christina Putrelo), bumping-grinding Panacea (Melissa Mitchell), the fan-dancing Geminae (twins Nancy and Sue Brennan), somersaulting wildcat Vibrata (Courtenay Krieger), and leggy 6’+ dominatrix Gymnasia (Kristina Keener).

Sam Zeller, musical theater’s most talented muscleman, gives yet another standout performance as Roman warrior Miles Gloriosus, garbed in plumes and blessed with sky-high self-esteem. Zeller has a big beautiful booming baritone, and the mightiest thighs ever seen on a Downey stage.

George Champion, who delighted in Oklahoma as Persian peddler Ali Hakim, here plays Senex, a role which allows him to demonstrate not only his comic chops but a beautiful voice as well. Champion and Santa Maria begin one of Funny Thing’s most memorable showstoppers (“Everybody Ought To Have A Maid”) as a duet, but the song has not one but (count’em) two built-in encores, the first with Massey making it a trio, and the second adding Stoten to make it a fab quartet and end the number to a huge ovation.

Ben Hensley returns to DCLO with his great smile and infectious charm as Hero, opposite the exquisite soprano of Heather Nichole White as Philia. Hensley sings a lovely “Love, I Hear,” and joins White for the even lovelier “Lovely” (“I’m lovely, all I am is lovely. Lovely is the one thing I can do.”)  The two share great stage chemistry.

Ann Peck McBride abandons all vanity with a prosthetic Roman nose to end all Roman noses as Domina, Senex’s wife, a battleaxe in the Marjorie Main tradition, who gets only one song, but a dandy one, the very funny “That Dirty Old Man.”

Michael McGreal is very funny indeed as the aged Erronius, especially as he jogs (seven times) around the Seven Hills Of Rome.  Steven Chavarria, Glenn Edward, Rob Fox, Tyler Milliron, Neil Starkenberg, and Adam Trent are the six Proteans, who assume numerous roles including soldiers, citizens, and eunuchs, with Trent’s gymnastic skills making him a particular stand-out.

Continuing her recent spate of hit productions, director Moode proves once again that she can do no wrong, with the farcical Act 2’s countless entrances and exits and mistaken identities building to a great “happily ever after” denouement worthy of Shakespeare.

By Moode’s side are legendary choreographer Miriam Nelson (gotta love those chorus line moves) and talented musical director Clement.  Design Partners Inc. have lit the Downey stage, with Ralph Amendola providing sound design. Debbie La Franchi’s costumes and Robin Esslinger’s wigs and makeup are standouts.

Even those in the “I Just Don’t Get Sondheim” club will want to make an exception for the laugh-a-minute, no, make that laugh-every-ten-seconds A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.  A funny and tuneful time is guaranteed to one and all.

Downey Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd., Downey.

–Steven Stanley
May 30, 2008

Comments are closed.