A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Through Sun., Feb. 15
Let’s see: we’re huddled indoors to escape the snow, ice and bone-chilling winds. The economy continues to hit a new low every day. Ann Coulter’s jaw is no longer wired shut.
These grim facts make it necessary to escape reality, and that brings us to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!” declares the first song of this venerable musical, which Good Theater has chosen as its first show of the new year.
We open in ancient Rome, where all roads lead. Old Senex (Stephen Underwood) and his shrewish wife, Domina (Denise Poirier), go on a little journey, leaving their young and naïve son Hero (Christopher Reilling) alone with the help. Tony Reilly plays Hero’s personal slave, Pseudolus, who as a servant is less than sedulous — he’d rather gamble and carouse than dust the urns. But when Pseudolus learns that Hero is in love with a virgin who lives in the house of lechery next door, he makes the young master a deal. If I get you the girl, says the slave, you set me free.
Playwrights Burt Shevelove and Larry (M*A*S*H) Gelbart begin with this simple set-up and proceed to pile on the comic complications. First of all, the comely virgin in question has already been sold to a general, who is expected to arrive at any moment. While Pseudolus deals with that little complication, Hero’s parents return to Rome, soldiers start running around like Keystone Cops, mood-altering potions are brewed, disguises are donned, misunderstandings multiply, lightly clad courtesans sashay and tintinnabulate, and puns are flung about like banana peels. But fear not: everything works out in the end, for is that not the definition of comedy?
The songs here are by Stephen Sondheim, a theatrical master not known for giddiness or light amusements. In other plays, his incisive wordplay and disinterest in catchy melodies often combine to create songs that are intellectually impressive but as emotionally moving as the Times Sunday crossword. But here he’s in crowd-pleasing mode: the keys are major, the tempi are bouncy, the best lyrics bawdy.
Take “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” in which several males sing the praises of servile women. Underwood leads the chorus with a twinkle in his eye. Of all the cast, he seems the most in tune with the spirit of the show — he’s randy, shameless and good-natured. “Something smells divine,” he announces after a bath, “and it’s me!” All he wants is to get laid, and who can blame him when a parade of languid lasses with names like Vibrata and Gymnasia are draped seductively all over the stage?
Underwood’s cheerful lechery contrasts nicely with Reilling’s goggle-eyed naiveté as Hero. Father and son, entranced by the same girl, share a hilarious duet called “Impossible.” Equally absurd and amusing is Poirier as Domina, vamping it up all over the place in a fine Madeline Kahn manner. And let’s not forget Bill Elllis as Captain Miles Gloriosus. Any fellow who can proclaim, “I am my ideal!” with such brawny self-regard and still command affection is welcome on the stage.
Yet all these fine performances are not enough to perfect this iteration of Forum. Halfway through Act One, the pace slackens so much that one longs for the fall of the Roman Empire. (If there were groundlings at the St. Lawrence, they’d be shouting, “Get on with it!”) Reilly, at least during the matinee performance I saw, seems more weary than puckish in the pivotal role of Pseudolus. It’s easy to forget in the midst of all the silliness that Pseudolus is bargaining for his freedom.
Though there are a few lumps in this pastry, it’s still light and sweet. Sondheim and Gelbart have done better work elsewhere, but who cares? Forum remains a diverting slice of escapism, and in these serious times, silliness must be treasured.
— Jason Wilkins
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs through Sun., Feb. 15, at the St. Lawrence Arts & Community Center, 76 Congress St., Portland. Performances are Thurs. at 7:30 p.m., Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 p.m. (additional show Sat., Feb. 14, at 3 p.m.). Tix: $20 (Thurs. and Sat. matinee), $28 (other performances; $25 seniors and students). 885-5883. goodtheater.com.