In the days before Stephen Sondheim got serious with his 1970s hits Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd, way back in the pre-Beatles early 60s, the soon-to-be multiple Tony Award-winner wrote A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Even now, forty-seven years later, this early Sondheim hit remains the perfect choice for those who complain that Sondheim is “too dark” or that his melodies are inaccessible. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is hilarious farcical fun, with no higher goal than to present “something for everyone, a comedy tonight.”


The 1962 hit now opens The Norris Center For The Arts’ 2009-2010 season in a production to rival the best our CLOs have to offer.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart) is the tale of a Roman slave named Pseudolis who makes the following deal with his young master. If Pseudolis can help Hero win the love of the girl next door, master will grant slave his freedom. As with any farce worth its salt, one thing is for sure: There will be puns galore, plenty of doors slammed, and numerous identities mistaken. At the Norris, there’s the added bonus of having Pseudolis brought to life by the one-of-a-kind Nick Santa Maria, guaranteeing some of the cleverest ad-libs since the era of Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason.

Forum takes us back to the good old days of Ancient Rome circa 200 BC, where three families go about living their lives as next-door neighbors. In the center house resides middle-aged Senex (Barry Pearl), husband to a harpy named Domina (Farley Cadena) and father to a handsome hunk named Hero (Tyler Milliron). Slaving away for the Senexes are the aforementioned Pseudolis and the appropriately dubbed Hysterium (Michael Betts). To their right lives Marcus Lycus (Jeffrey Landman), a well-to-do businessman who deals in the buying and selling of beautiful ladies of pleasure. (His current stable features curvaceous beauties with names like Tintinabula and Vibratta, the simple sound of which is likely to set the average Roman’s body to vibrating and titinabulating.) To the left lives Erronius (John Briganti), an elderly gent whose infant children were long ago stolen by pirates. (See if you can guess which two characters will turn out to be Erronius’s long-lost twins.)

With Senex and Domina out of town, Hero confides to Pseudolis his love for Philia (Suzanne Petrela), the most beauteous (and virginal) of Marcus Lycus’s courtesans. Unfortunately for Hero, Philia’s owner has already promised her to the always victorious Captain Miles Gloriosus (Chris Warren Gilbert), on his way back from battle to claim his bride-to-be. It’s up to Pseudolis to come up with a plan to insure his young owner’s happiness and his own freedom. As you might imagine, there will be complications aplenty on the road to liberty and bliss.

Among the Sondheim songs which make Forum such a treat are “Comedy Tonight,” “Lovely,” “Pretty Little Picture,” and “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid,” each of which belies the composer’s reputation for “tunelessness.” Forum may well be Sondheim’s most hummable score ever. Add to that Shevelove and Gelbart’s Tony-winning book, which hasn’t aged a day since 1962, and you’ve got a musical that even Sondheim haters will love.

Director James W. Gruessing, Jr. does a bang-up job of keeping the action fast and furious, and inserts bit after inventive bit to make this Forum one of the funniest and most original ever. The director has added numerous musical theater references and snippets of songs from other shows, and an absolutely hysterical “death” scene with quotes from sources as diverse as Gypsy and Citizen Kane.

As he did in Downey CLO’s production of Forum last year, Santa Maria proves that there’s not a better, or funnier, Pseudolis around. It’s hard to imagine even Nathan Lane, of the most recent Broadway revival, getting more laughs, or ad-libbing more quickly and cleverly than Santa Maria does here, besides having a sensational musical comedy voice, shown off in “Free,” “Pretty Little Picture,” and the reprise of “Lovely.” Santa Maria sets the rollicking free-for-all mood, and the rest of the cast follow his example to the letter.

Betts is absolutely marvelous as Pseudolis’s co-conspirator Hysterium, a performance that pays tribute to Jack Gilford’s Broadway original without imitation, making Betts the perfect straight man to Santa Maria’s jester. Landman brings his own brand of boyish charm to Marcus Lycus, and as henpecked hubby Senex Barry Pearl has never been better. Santa Maria and Pearl 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 Betts making it a trio, and the second adding Landman to make it a Fab Foursome and end the number with a bang.

Young love is in good-looking, talented hands with Milliron and Petrela as Hero and Phillia, the former fairly bursting with the excitement of first love, the latter deliciously clueless about anything even vaguely intellectual. Both sing gorgeously as a bonus. Gilbert makes for one of the tallest, handsomest, most vocally gifted Miles Gloriosuses on record, and has a great time poking fun at the full-of-himself Roman soldier. The fabulous Cadena once again steals scenes as battle-ax Domina, her ode to love-hate relationships (“That Dirty Old Man”) an Act 2 highlight. Briganti makes the very most of his scenes as the doddering Erronius, tricked into walking round the seven hills of Rome seven times in an effort to get him out of his house.

Playing multiple roles as slaves, citizens, soldiers, and eunuchs are the marvelously versatile Proteans (Sam Cavanaugh, Jason Sluyter, and Adam Trent), Funny/Forum’s answer to The Three Stooges. Adding pulchritude and sex-appeal as Senex’s harem are Anna Hundtoft and Ann Myers (the Geminae), Layli Kayhani (Tintinabula), Courtenay Krieger (Panacea), Libby Snyder (Gymnasia), and Adrienne Storrs (Vibratta).

The lovely Myers doubles as choreographer, her snappy dances spicing up the proceedings considerably. Daniel Thomas conducts the show’s eight-piece orchestra with his accustomed brand of musical expertise. Costumes by Theatre Company (Upland, CA), lighting by Christina Munich, and sound design by Julie Ferrin are all first rate.

The Norris has once again proven itself to be one of the L.A. area’s hidden treasures. With Broadway/National tour-level performances, and direction that makes it seem fresh and new, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum provides the perfect farewell to the summer, and a hilarious hello to the fall theater season ahead.

Norris Theatre For The Performing Arts, 27570 Crossfield Drive, Rolling Hills Estates.
–Steven Stanley
September 18, 2009
Photos: Ed Krieger

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