Often times in theatre, you see plays or musicals where the characters know they are in a show. They break the fourth wall and look/talk/interact directly with the audience, but they usually will stay in character. It’s not too often you see a musical where, from the very beginning, it is made clear that everyone on stage knows that they are an actor playing a part in a show.
In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, our narrator comes out at the top of the show and welcomes us, informs us of what part he will be playing, introduces the cast/characters while leading the opening ensemble number. As the title suggests, our guide spells out, and the chorus sings clearly is that this is meant to be a light-hearted comedy through and through. The show uses every trick in the book to get laughs – slapstick, raunch, farcical chase scenes – and while some land heartily, we left the show with mixed feelings overall.
(Disclosure — SHE has worked previously with both this company and this director before)
Town Hall Sets the Stage for Comedy
HE SAID: There can be something wonderful about dropping the pretense of a show from the beginning. In this case, all of us, even the actors, know this is make-believe and are putting on a show simply meant to tickle our funny bones, so there is an ease about this piece that allows the audience to sit back and just enjoy the ride. This sets up some great comic opportunities, but it can also distance and alienate the audience a little as well. Especially in the first act, I felt more distanced than engaged. For many of the comic bits, I could see gags being set up for a punchline, which often undercut the full comedic payoff.
SHE SAID: Before we saw this production, I was familiar with the music, but I’d never seen this show staged before. My impression is that the alienation that you’re talking about is due to the fact that when it was written, it was deliciously bawdy, racy, and inappropriately sexual, but that much of its ZING has pittered away with age. Written over 50 years ago, there are some moments that still seem impressively fast-paced, funny, and delightful, but not much of it is shocking to modern musical theater audiences.
Performers Hit Comic Strides in Time
HE SAID: For me, things really clicked in during the second act. Moments started to hit their stride and everyone’s timing seemed to be more in sync with each other – which is great considering the timing necessary to make the chase scene work as well as it did. The highlight of the show is the relationship between Psuedolus, played by Scott McLean, and Hysterium, brought to life by Rob Janzen. The two work wonderfully together and the pairing really pays off in the second act song “Lovely (reprise)”. The other surprising wealth of laughter came from watching the three proteans – Benjy Schirm, Chris Russell, and Joe Majestic – bound around the stage playing series of bumbling lackeys.
SHE SAID : I completely agree — in fact, almost any comedy spends most of the first act setting up a tightly wound story and most of the second act unraveling. The craziest moment of unraveling is the rather lengthy chase sequence, which is impeccably timed! Maybe it’s the fact that the slower humor I was talking about above is due to the older script, but when the humor gets entirely physical, it doesn’t seem old at all. I also loved Rob Janzen’s take on his hysterical character (in both meanings of the word). McLean as Pseudolus is really on fire in the second act — a few times int he first act he seems like he’s reaching for the laugh just once or twice, but when he settles in he showesoff some a very relaxed, natural comic skill.
HE SAID: Musically, there are some wonderful gems. “Comedy Tonight”, the opening number, and the well-known “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” were among a few stuck in my head for days after. Interestingly enough, this show represents the first time that Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics for a show, and you can kind of tell he got better with age. There isn’t a lot of harmony in the vocal parts and some of the songs kind of repeat for no reason (probably due to the age in which it was written). Also, an entire song was cut from this production (which is typical of this show but a bit surprising since the program still had it listed). It’s not unusual for songs to be cut through the lifespan of a show, but it does add to the sense of their being a lack of polish to the written music.
SHE SAID: The songs definitely stuck in my head — due to both the catchiness of the tunes and the repetition. The production also misses a few opportunities to freshen the piece up a bit. Town Hall also chose to use recorded tracks for this production, and in the past I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with how well tracks work for this space, but this time they were a little off for me. Perhaps we were sitting in an odd area of the house for sound, or perhaps the original orchestrations are written this way, but to me the tracks here seem a little thin, which causes a bit of a break in the flow of the show for each song. The singers are all fantastic, and so I would have loved to hear a rounder, deeper sound underneath them. The set looks great and serves a variety of purposes throughout the show.
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Everybody Ought to Find a Funny Thing…. Or Two
THEY SAID: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has some great comic material, and there are several moments when the comedy really shines. Even though not all of the potentially hilarious moments were on point the night we saw it, these elements tend to solidify as the run continues. To audiences used to more modern paces, it might seem to drag a little, but if you like the pace of older musicals, you’ll find this one in capable hands. Although this show won’t quite have you on the edge of your seat, it’s a great opportunity to sit back and enjoy this classic musical comedy ride!
For more information on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, see the wikipedia page. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum plays through Feb 5 at the Town Hall Arts Center in Littleton. Click the banner above for tickets and more information.