By Colin Douglas
It’s hard to believe the hysterical musical comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, has been around since 1962.
The show features a book co-written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, two highly respected comic writers from the 1950’s with long lists of television and theatrical credits. And, in one of his earliest Broadway ventures, it’s the first musical to feature both melody and lyrics by the master of musical theater, Stephen Sondheim.
The result is an absolutely sublime evening of comedy that, even in a less glitzy production, is guaranteed to incite much mirth and laughter.
Lake Forest’s Citadel Theatre’s current production is entertaining and stars some old favorite actors, while introducing several new talents. In a fitting finale to their 13th season, laughter and music rein supreme. Retired New Trier High School director and veteran of many Citadel productions, Bob Estrin once again plies his talent with this classic musical. There’s much to recommend in Estrin’s staging. He’s assembled an enthusiastic 18-member cast that not only fills the modest Citadel stage, but often oozes out into the adjoining aisles. All of his talented actor/singers work hard to bring life to their bizarre characters and laughs to their attentive audience.
However, what’s often missing in this production is that razor sharp comic timing absolutely necessary for farce. It’s not easy to orchestrate. Given all the running, door slamming, pratfalls, double-takes and over-the-top buffoonery, this show requires a firm control. Much like a well-executed dance performance, farce is choreographed. It adheres to a definite rhythm, and there’s no room for sloppiness. Lines must be delivered precisely as written—fast, precise and loud. Pauses must be used judiciously—because comedy, especially farce, requires the constant momentum and rhythm of a snare drum. The audience shouldn’t have time to realize how ridiculous is the situation. Unfortunately, Estrin allows some of his actors a bit too much self indulgence in their performances, throwing off the necessary timing. As a result, as in Erronius’ entrances, played by Jeffrey Geddes, the play comes to a standstill. It’s at these times where the comedy either flounders or simply falls flat on its face.
Estrin is ably assisted by talented Musical Director Randy Casey (who also accompanies on the piano, while conducting his talented three-member backstage combo) and Choreographer Jennifer Cupani, whose dances are both exotic and goofy. Scenic Designer Tianyu Qiu has created an admirably large set for this small stage. The requisite alleyways and three houses, including a rooftop patio atop one of them, all have working doors and provide a cartoonish environment for this silly story to live. Janice Gemp has worked wonders providing classical comic costumes for this enormous cast, including several wardrobe changes for the trio of hardworking Proteans (played with undaunted energy by Sam Martin, Chase Peacock and Quinn Rattan).
Unbelievably, the plot is inspired by the comedies by Plautus, an ancient Roman playwright who wrote years before the birth of Christ. The musical tells of Pseudolus, a slave to his henpecked master, Senex, his overbearing mistress, Domina, and their naive son, Hero. While the boy’s parents are off on a journey, Pseudolus is left in charge of their son. He makes a bargain with his young charge that if he can unite Hero with Philia, the young virgin he’s been pining over (who happens to be a new courtesan at the pleasure palace of Marcus Lycus), Pseudolus will earn his freedom. Add to the story an arrogant warrior named Miles Gloriosus, a befuddled old man named Erronius, whose children were stolen by pirates, a bevy of sexy beauties and a versatile trio of comedic acrobats and you have, what should be, a fool-proof recipe for comedy.
Tim Walsh makes his Citadel debut, stepping into the sandals of Pseudolus. His talent for broad, bawdy humor and deadpan asides makes this actor a good choice for this role. He’s assisted by another Citadel newcomer, Mark Anderson, as fellow slave, Hysterium. The two employ broad strokes and subtle humor to bring their characters to life. Jacob Fjare charms as a naive, lovestruck young Hero and Angela Carrington, so funny in Citadel’s “Don’t Dress for Dinner,” sparkles as the stereotypical dumb blond, Philia.
In supporting roles, area musical theatre and opera veteran Bill Chamberlain makes a comic and subservient Senex, standing out in musical numbers, like the naughty quartet, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” (sung with Pseudolus, Hysterium and Marcus Lycus) and “Impossible,” a duet sung with the doe-eyed Fjare. Ellen Phelps, fresh from her fine performance in Citadel’s “Other Desert Cities,” is imposing and very funny as Domina. Her rendition of “That Dirty Old Man” delightfully displays the matron’s sublimated romantic desires.
Geoff Isaac returns to the Citadel stage as an appropriately smarmy purveyor of flesh, Marcus Lycus. His bevy of beauties includes Margaret Garofalo, Coco Kasperowicz, Sharisse Manning, Carmen Risi, Rachel Meloan and Alison Stake. However, talented newcomer Adam Kasprowicz all but steals the show, displaying his big voice and taking big steps in his portrayal of egotistical military commander, Miles Gloriosus.
Citadel’s offering of this classic musical farce is to be commended for its musical mastery, a delightfully cartoony scenic design, many of its comic elements and for introducing so many talented newcomers to Lake Forest audiences. Because the show’s pacing is an issue, this show runs a lengthy 2-1/2 hours, including intermission. But, as in most cases, the production should tighten up during its month-long run. For a delightfully whimsical evening of comedy and song, Citadel Theatre triumphs again.
Citadel Theatre presents “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” through May 22 at 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest. More information and tickets are available by phone at 847-735-8554, ext. 1, or online here. Additional reviews by Colin Douglas are published at theatreinchicago.com.