A Night at the Opera, I mean A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, is taking the stage at Broadway Rose Theatre with togas, gadflies and a good romp into 1960s humor.
The ’60s needed some good laughs: Forum opened on Broadway amid the Cold War worries of 1962, anticipating a decade of land wars in Asia, protests and riots, assassinations. It’s no wonder people dialed back to a lighter, simpler, elementary humor. After a TV dinner and news program filled with commentary on potential nuclear war, a man in a three-piece suit slipping on a banana peel saved many people’s sanity. Stephen Sondheim’s Forum was such an antidote, and god knows, we could use some good laughs right now.
The hijinks in Forum are a blend of the Marx Brothers’ zany surreal layered comedies with Shakespeare’s mistaken identities and yearning lovers, all put in a Roman setting. There’s also a little Jeeves and Wooster – the smarter servant under the dimwitted master. Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum took the best from one of Will’s favorite playwrights, the Roman Plautus, who pioneered many of the devices. Shevelove, Gelbart and Sondheim called in Jerome Robbins, who had collaborated on West Side Story and Gypsy, to tighten up the edges and give Forum some of his play-doctoring muscle work. The results are some bright and well-defined characters who move in a neat syncopation through side-splitting chaos.
Broadway Rose’s cast is drawn from a deep voice and dance talent pool of actors who’ve appeared in many of this year’s hits around town. Ethan Crystal is Hero, the son of the patricians Domina and Senex. Everything is on the surface in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and the character names tell you everything below the surface. Crystal plays the young fawn in love, if a bit misled: his heart’s been stolen by a virgin courtesan living in the brothel next door. Crystal plays the doe-eyed, about-to-be-sacrificed-to the-temple-of-hormones youth with a radiant energy that spreads from ear to ear and gives a punch to his step. In Heathers: The Musical and American Idiot, he gave memorable performances as the all-American bad boy, but this time around he puts his best voice and foot forward with a sunny charm.
Hero’s aide and servant is Pseudolus, played by Dan Murphy, who co-founded Broadway Rose 25 years ago with his wife, Sharon Maroney. Murphy’s Pseudolus is a little Paul Lynde and a little Harvey Korman, peppered with biting comebacks and an actor’s love at playing a confused character plotting his way to safety. Sean O’Skea’s set is a gated Roman McMansion community with bold pop-out colors and shapes. It looks like the set for the television show Laugh-In, but circa 200 B.C. and somewhere in the Italian boot. Murphy is the top banana, and as the madcap ensemble gets thrown into the thick of the plot, his Pseudolus carries the stage like the captain of a raucous crew traveling through the Borscht Belt. Murphy’s expert skills, honed after many years on stage, create a show-stopper in themselves. There’s the cane-pulling gag from vaudeville’s golden past, and Murphy and crew had the audience almost rolling out of their seats for most of the night. The comic peak hit high right before intermission, and it was the sort of moment Mel Brooks would’ve had in mind.
The spirit of Henny Youngman permeates the lines between Mike Dederian’s Senex and his wife, Domina, played by Emily Sahler. She’s the domina, the boorish nag who could use a little sexual liberation from her toga. We kept waiting for Senex to yell, “Take my wife … please!”
Next door to the respectable couple is the house of Lycus, which hosts a stable of pin-up girls from early Playboy magazines: courtesans in all kinds of flavors to fit the tastes of many men. Long legs and casino costumes outfit the sex-crazed mavens. It must’ve been a living dream for the martini-bearing men in grey flannel suits of the time. Norman Wilson’s Lycus, the owner of ill repute, wears a purple robe of nobility and a wreath upon his head. He’s the 21st century B.C. pimp not afraid to be sporting life. Kaitlyn Sage’s Phylia has a snow-white purity only slightly soiled by her desire to please the man who bought her from Lycus. Philia is a long-haired Weena from George Orwell’s Time Machine. We can’t be sure if she’s naïve or has too much atmosphere in her head. Sage and Crystal make a good pair at a Hallmark kind of love with all its schmaltz and promise.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum won six Tony awards, and while it’s not performed as much as it should be, it’s aged well, like a fine Brunello in the cask. Frank Rich, New York Times theater critic and friend to Sondheim, noted that while rock music came to dominate the Broadway scene, Sondheim stuck to his guns and kept the traditional musical well-crafted and alive. Forum provided a humorous start for the young Sondheim to spread his composer’s wings, and foreshadows the work to come. Broadway Rose director Abe Reynold keeps the original integrity of Forum intact, but doesn’t offer it up as a period piece. The simple and memorable melodies, the screwball scenes and zippy one liners, stay fresh while honoring the musical’s legacy. The live orchestra is a pleasant bonus, and is appreciated when an errant character yells at them from time to time or when the orchestra produces the long trombone sound effect we’ve become familiar with through cartoons. I’m afraid, dear Cicero, you may be wrong: a good horse laugh or two will be necessary during Broadway Rose’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Broadway Rose’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues through August 21 at the Deb Fennell Auditorium in Tigard. Ticket and schedule information here.