“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is playing through Dec. 18 at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.
Photo by Jason Nuttle Photography.
It has been a little more than a year since the death of Stephen Sondheim, the leading composer/lyricist of 20th century musical theater. His genius at wordplay is on full display with “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which is running at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre through Dec. 18.
After gaining fame as a lyricist for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” he finally had the opportunity to realize his dream of being a composer as well with “Forum.” It is the first Broadway production for which he is credited as a composer/lyricist, some 60 years ago. It was mainstream Broadway at the time but alas is a little dated. The risqué sexual undercurrent was cutting edge then but is tame by today’s standards.
Writing a farce was a challenge for Sondheim. The characters in “Forum” exist to keep us laughing, and Sondheim took up the challenge, bending rules of the “book musical” he had been taught by his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. It helped that the book is by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (of “M*A*S*H” fame), who were influenced by the Roman playwright Plautus, who is considered the father of contemporary farce.
In a talk that was transcribed for the August 1978 Dramatists Guild Quarterly, Sondheim said: “We worked on" ‘Forum’ for three years because farce is, I think, the most difficult form of playwriting. … I think that ‘'Forum’ is the best farce ever written … elegant and … tightly plotted. There’s not a wasted moment in ‘Forum,’ and the truth and the test of it is that the play is just as funny when performed by a group of high school students as it is when performed on Broadway. It is based on situation, so solid, that you cannot not laugh.”
Which is the other reason for seeing this production in the newly renovated Maltz: It fits a vision of becoming “Broadway South,” using the expanded and updated facilities to mount a full-blown production with original scenery, costumes, lighting and orchestration, as well as talented actors.
The plot is straightforward, filled with sexual innuendo (albeit dated and schtick). It is about a conniving Roman slave (Pseudolus) who wants his freedom, while his master (Hero) wants the virginal girl next door (Philia), so the slave concocts a plan to achieve his master’s desire if he will give him his freedom. Every complication known to vaudeville is thrown in the way.
When collaborating with Shevelove and Gelbart, Sondheim had Phil Silvers in mind when creating Pseudolus. Silvers played the role in a revival, but the original Broadway role went to Zero Mostel. Nathan Lane is another luminary who has played the role, so it’s a tough act to follow. But Scott Cote measures up to the demands of the role for the Maltz. He also has a better singing voice than those well-known predecessors.
Steven Huynh plays the young master, Hero, with wide-eyed innocence. Mackenzie Meadows delightfully displays Philia’s naïveté of just about everything but attracting a man.
One of those men is the Roman captain, Miles Gloriosus, to whom brothel owner Marcus Lycus (Paul Louis) sold Philia (one of the many farcical complications). Sean William Davis gloriously plays Miles (think of the bravado of Lancelot singing “C’est Moi” in “Camelot”). Davis oozes, majesty and sex appeal onstage, his voice clarion. He appears at the end of the first act and dominates the production from then on.
The many memorable and/ amusing songs include “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” “Pretty Little Picture “and “I’m Calm” (the latter laughably delivered by Jeremy Morse as Hysterium). The best-known song, sung with gusto by the cast, and one that Sondheim added to the show more or less at the last minute, is “Comedy Tonight,” heeding the advice of Hammerstein that an opening number can make or break a show.
Joining the ensemble are Roberta Burke (Domina), Wayne LeGette (Erronius) and Andrew Sellon (Senex). The courtesans — Tintinabula, Panacea, Geminae Twins, Vibrata and Gymnasia” — are amusingly and seductively played by Cat Pagano, Ashley McManus, Melanie Farber, Minami Yushi, Laura Sky Herman and Kellyanna Polk Wackym. respectively, while Cameron Benda, Alex Jorth,and Deon Ridley play the proteans, who are called on to play different roles and move the plot along.
Director Jennifer Werner and choreographer Ariel J. Reid have such a large cast rotating around the stage that there is never a dull moment. The two hour running time with one intermission passes fast.
Musical director Cary Fantel’s ensemble of eight musicians comes across like a larger orchestra, and Scott Stauffer’s sound design is clear. Leslye Menshouse’s costume designs and Adam Koch’s colorful scenic designs of the homes of Lycus, Senex and Erronius bolster the production.
If you are a Sondheim fan or appreciate a night of diversion from the times we live in, you will want to see the Maltz’s production of “Forum.” Indeed: “Goodness and badness/Man in his madness/This time it turns out all right/Tragedy tomorrow/Comedy tonight!”
The remaining performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday, and 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets start at $69. The Maltz is at 1001 E. Indiantown Road in Jupiter. For more information, visit jupitertheatre.org, or call 561-575-2223.