A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Looking back at the great musical comedies, there are very few that would qualify as a farce. The reason for this is that to maintain the non-stop momentum of a farce in a musical, the production numbers must be as over the top as the book.

(L to R) Ron Orbach as Pseudolus and Stephen Berger as Lycus
(L to R) Ron Orbach as Pseudolus
and Stephen Berger as Lycus
Photo: Terry Shapiro
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum ran for two years on Broadway and won the Tony for Best Musical in 1962 because it has a lot of compelling elements, including Stephen Sondheim's clever lyrics and burlesque-flavored score, as well as a worthwhile comedic premise (book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart).

Given the distance of 45 years, however, we can see that the qualities that make Forum unique are also what make it problematic: it's a hybrid that mixes a farcical book with a comedic score. Each alone is excellent, but together they create a push-pull dynamic, where the story zanily races forward, one shtick following another, then suddenly skidding to a pause for a clever song and dance.

Anderson Davis as Hero and Christine Rowan as Philia
Anderson Davis as Hero and
Christine Rowan as Philia
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Compare this to, say, The Producers, where the over-the-top production numbers match the madcap antics that lead up to them, and you can see what it takes to make a musical farce work.

Glenn Lawrence as Miles Gloriosus (center) and the Proteans
Glenn Lawrence as Miles Gloriosus
(center) and the Proteans
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Given the schizophrenic nature of Forum, director Bruce K. Sevy's does an admirable job with the Denver Center Theatre Company's first musical production in 18 years. The 10-piece orchestra, led by local whiz Lee Stametz, has a fun time with the raunchy undertones of the score, giving the music a low-comedy feel that, after some tinkering, was exactly what Sondheim foreshadowed in the opening number:

"Goodness and badness
Man in his madness
This time it all turns out all right!
Tragedy tomorrow! Comedy tonight!"

Mike Hartman as Senex
Mike Hartman as Senex
Photo: Terry Shapiro
The story, too, is filled with antics that set a brisk pace. Based on Plautus' Mostellaria, the plot revolves around a Roman slave, Pseudolus (Ron Orbach), who stands to win his freedom if he can extricate the virgin Philia from the clutches of the warrior, Miles Gloriosus, and deliver her to his master's son, Hero.

Philip Pleasants as Erronius
Philip Pleasants as Erronius
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Orbach mines Pseudolus' passion for citizenship and creative opportunism, persuading, pleading, and posing to overcome a steady stream of obstacles that threaten the slave's plans, including: his boss, David Ivers' loony Hysterium, whom he blackmails, threatening to reveal the head slave's collection of erotic pottery; the neighboring courtesan dealer, Stephen Berger's smarmy Marcus Lycus, whom he bribes to "borrow" Christine Rowan's comely but vacuous Philius; his owner, Mike Hartman's henpecked and nearsighted Senex, whom he sidelines with dreams of an affair until the hen, Kathy Brady's hardy Domina, turns his fortunes 180°; a long-lost old man, Philip Pleasants' gullible Erronius, whom he distracts with a soothsayer's prescription; and, ultimately, the Captain, Glenn Lawrence's big, brash, and bold Miles Gloriosus, at whose hand he nearly dies before being saved by a deus ex machina.

The glorious Proteans, a gay band of eunuchs, and the lascivious courtesans make for a ribald chorus, and the craft work—the set, costumes, lighting, and sound—add to the playful atmosphere.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs through July 8th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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