The theater company whose recent reinvention of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret for the intimate stage earned it both critical and audience raves now returns with a “downsized” staging of the Stephen Sondheim classic A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and the result is one of the funniest—and most ingenious—Forums ever.
For those who think Sondheim = Serious, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum will prove a delicious surprise. Unlike Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd, this earlier Sondheim hit remains the perfect choice for those who complain that the composer-lyricist is “too dark” or that his melodies are inaccessible.
1962’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is hilariously farcical fun, with no higher goal than to present “something for everyone, a comedy tonight,” and with Crown City Theatre Company’s Lisaun Whittingham and William A. Reilly in the chariot-drivers’ seats, comedy is indeed king—along with choreography and song.
As with any farce worth its salt, one thing is for sure: There will be puns galore, numerous slammed doors, and plenty of mistaken identities.
Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s hilarious book takes us back to Ancient Rome circa 200 BC, where three families go about living their lives as next-door neighbors.
In the center house resides old man Senex (Kurt Andrew Hansen), husband to a harpy named Domina (Erica Hanrahan-Ball) and father to handsome hunk Hero (Joe Mendick), whose personal slave Pseudolus (Jason Peter Kennedy) labors alongside the appropriately dubbed Hysterium (Nick Ley).
To their right lives Marcus Lycus (Curt Bonnem), a well-to-do businessman who deals in the buying and selling of beautiful ladies of pleasure. (His current stable features curvaceous courtesans with names like Tintinabula and Vibratta, the simple sound of which is likely to set the average heterosexual Roman’s body to vibrating and titinabulating.)
To the left lives Erronius (Jeffrey Sabino), an elderly gent whose infant children were long ago stolen by pirates.
With Senex and Domina out of town, Hero confides to Pseudolus his love for Philia (Katie DeShan), the most beauteous (and virginal) of Marcus Lycus’s rentgirls. Unfortunately for Hero, Philia’s owner has already promised her to the always victorious warrior Miles Gloriosus (Michael J. Marchak), on his way back from battle to claim his bride-to-be.
So Pseudolus (Jason Peter Kennedy) makes a deal with his young master. If he can help Hero win girl-next-door’s love, master will grant slave his freedom.
Now it’s up to Pseudolus to come up with a plan to insure Hero’s happiness and his own future as a free man as well.
As might be imagined, there will be complications aplenty on the road to liberty and bliss along with Sondheim gems like “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 the musical’s Tony-winning book, which hasn’t aged a day since ’62, and you’ve got a musical that even Sondheim haters will love.
Crown City’s Cabaret had its director Gary Lamb reimagining the Broadway classic as a memory musical, its cast of eleven standing in for the original’s thirty-two.
Cabaret choreographer Whittingham takes over Forum’s directorial and choreographic reins, and while her approach is less revolutionary than Lamb’s (and the Broadway cast of eighteen cut down by “only” six members), the results are as ingenious and crowd-pleasing as can be, with plenty of delightful footwork along the way.
Whittingham has cast Pseudolus and Hysterium at about half the age of Broadway originals Zero Mostell and Jack Gilford, giving the production a youthful zest that is contagious among the entire ensemble, cleverly cut down by having a half-dozen of its members assume multiple roles, most significantly Shayna Gabrielle, Sabino, Lindsay Schuberth, and Nikos Siozos, who not only fulfill (customarily all-male) Protean duties as slaves, citizens, soldiers, and eunuchs, but portray (with the aid of DeShan and Hanrahan-Ball) all six of Senex’s harem—Tintinabula, Panacea, Gymnasia, Vibratta, and the Geminae twins.
There’s not a weak link in the entire Crown City cast, beginning with Cabaret’s Kennedy, a comedic revelation as Pseudolus. The multi-talented performer channels Broadway revival star Nathan Lane, revealing pitch-perfect comic timing, a way with a one-liner, and no need to ad lib, the better to spotlight the comic genius of book writers Shevelove and Gelbart. Plus he’s got the voice to make the very most of Sondheim gems like “Free,” “Pretty Little Picture,” and a “Lovely” reprise.
As for Pseudolus co-conspirator Hysterium, a star is born in the terrifically engaging Ley, who’s got the look of a classic silent movie great, oodles of charm, abundant slapstick wizardry … and looks “absolutely lovely” in a dress.
Leading men don’t get any handsomer or more appealing than Mendick, whose Hero bursts out of his toga with the excitement of first love, and DeShan is girl-next-door-tastic as Philia, deliciously clueless about anything even vaguely intellectual, and both up-and-comers vocalize to perfection.
Sweeney Todd extraordinaire Hansen has contagious fun playing for laughs as henpecked hubby Senex opposite one of the most glamorous battle-axes ever, a sensational Hanrahan-Ball as a Real Housewives-ready Domina, whose ode to love-hate relationships (“That Dirty Old Man”) proves a bona fide showstopper.
Bonnem channels his inner Goodfella to scene-stealing effect as Jersey Boy Marcus Lycus, and speaking of scene stealers, a fabulous Marchak does his own larceny as sexy, full-of-himself Roman military man Miles Gloriosus.
As for the Protean Four, Gabrielle, Sabino, Schuberth, and Siozos all deliver the goods … and then some … in multiple, multi-sex cameos, a bewigged Sabino garnering extra laughs 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.
As in Cabaret, musical director Reilly provides an excellent mix of live and prerecorded instrumentals, arranged by Reilly himself.
Scenic/props designer Keiko Moreno gives us three distinct, colorful side-by-side Roman domiciles and plenty of period/modern accoutrements, the same clever mix of old and new that makes Tanya Apuya’s costume design share star billing with Funny Forum’s dozen dazzling performers. (Note in particular each character’s footwear, including Converse sneakers and argyle socks, runway-ready heels, two-tone Oxfords, and Doc Martens boots.) Zad Potter’s lighting and Mendick’s sound designs score high marks as well.
Potter is production stage manager. David Hemphill is technical director. Michael Pammit is production manager.
Travis Dixon, Gabrielle, Rachel Osting, and Emily King Brown are swings.
This time round, Crown City specifies precisely who in the cast is a member of Actor’s Equity, half a dozen to be precise, another bit of evidence as to how vital the Los Angeles 99-seat plan is to our intimate theater scene and how crucial it is for it not to go.
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum may have been written for a great big Broadway stage, and my four previous Forums all have been performed in mid-to-large-sized houses, but this is one Broadway show that works as marvelously in an intimate space as it does full-sized.
Any company considering a scaled-down Funny Forum could do no better than to check out Crown City’s fabulous revival to see exactly how it should be done.
Crown City Theater, St. Matthew’s Church, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.
May 2, 2015
Photos: Matthew Kacergis, Peter Zuehlke