A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Garry Marshall Theatre
Through December 31
When thinking about prolific composer Stephen Sondheim’s canon, it’s easy to forget about A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It’s one of his early works, overshadowed by later shows like Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and Company. But the easiest way to differentiate it is through its utter lack of cynicism. A Funny Thing is just that — a funny thing. There’s no “after happily ever after,” no deep-seeded ennui or crumbling relationships, and no cannibalism.
A Funny Thing is presented to the audience by wisecracking narrator Pseudolus (Kyle C. Vogt). He introduces the cast of characters in the classic song “Comedy Tonight”: romantic protagonist Hero (Michael Thomas Grant); Hero’s parents Senex (Kevin Symons) and Domina (Candi Milo); the neighboring brothel owner, Lycus (E.K. Dagenfield); and crusading champion Miles Gloriosus (Clayton Snyder). Pseudolus is a slave in the house of Senex, along with Hysterium (Ethan Cohn), and has a sort of Greek chorus to help him tell the story (Shamicka Benn, Liz Bustle, and Vanessa Nichole). Later, we meet Philia (Nicole Kaplan), one of Lycus’ courtesans and the object of Hero’s affection.
Joseph Lee Bwarie stages the show effectively at the Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank. Though the stage is compact (but well-dressed), its smallness aids the show’s frenetic pace. Despite that, though, the first act seems to drag, while the second act ends surprisingly quickly. Much of this is likely the fault of the book, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, which frontloads most of the plot and songs before intermission.
The cast acquit themselves capably, singing with pure voices and enthusiastically carrying out Becca Sweitzer’s kinetic choreography. Kaplan’s Philia shines particularly brightly, as lovely as her signature song would have you believe. Vogt’s Pseudolus and Cohn’s Hysterium also play off each other quite nicely, with delightful comedic chemistry.
Unfortunately, the cast is hobbled by the orchestra, or lack thereof. Under Brent Crayton’s musical direction, the orchestrations have been stripped down to the bare minimum: keyboard, percussion, bass and reeds. Pumped through the speakers without any sense of live energy, they sound and feel like pre-recorded tracks, giving the show an unfortunate karaoke-type feel.
Otherwise, though, the show’s technical elements are quite good, and come together ably under stage manager Marcedes Clanton, who calls some incredibly precise cues.
The show itself hasn’t aged well, and it’s hard not to cringe at its depictions of women and sexual politics. (“Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” is particularly cringe-worthy.) It doesn’t sit well that every female character on stage is a courtesan, except Domina, who, as her name suggests, is little more than a nag. Likewise, it’s a bit jarring that the topic of slavery is played so blatantly for laughs. Pseudolus is demonstrably unhappy with being a slave; he schemes for his freedom, but also expresses strange reservations in the song “Free.” Thanks to the show’s messages, the musical feels like a product of a different era, and not in a good way. Perhaps the Forum might have benefitted from a dose of Sondheim’s trademark cynicism.
Garry Marshall Theatre, 4252 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank; Thur.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; through December 31. GarryMarshallTheatre.org. Running time: two hours and 10 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.