Paul C. Vogt, Justin Bowen, and Chelsea Krombach
in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
(© T Charles Erickson)
Paul C. Vogt, Justin Bowen, and Chelsea Krombach
in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
(© T Charles Erickson)
Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevlove, and Larry Gelbart's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is considered by many to be among the finest and funniest works in the American musical theater. Sadly, one couldn't prove this from Mark Waldrop's dispiriting production, now at the Paper Mill Playhouse.

The piece sports an unbeatable book and a first-rate score, including "Comedy Tonight," "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," "Free," and "Lovely," so the production still retains many laughs. However, it is marred by some major miscasting and inappropriate choices by the director, such as cutting the show's overture. Moreover, Ray Klausen's odd-looking set design, which presents the three houses at slanted angles, gives off the impression of trying too hard to be funny.

The show focuses on Pseudolus (Paul Vogt), a quick-witted Roman slave who makes his young master Hero (Justin Bowen) promise to free him if he can win -- for Hero -- the affections of a statuesque courtesan named Philia (Chelsea Krombach) from the House of Marcus Lycus next door.

What initially seems like a simple plan is made farcically impossible by Hero's lecherous father, Senex (Greg Vinkler) and disapproving mother, Domina (Beth McVey); the not-so-calm head slave Hysterium (John Scherer); Miles Gloriosus (Stephen J. Buntrock), the Roman captain who has already purchased Philia as his prospective bride; and Erroneus (Chet Carlin), a senile, nearly blind old man who becomes convinced that his house is haunted.

Vogt is still finding his footing as Pseudolus -- a fact made clear when he went up on the lyrics of "Comedy Tonight." Moreover, he currently does not have the spark and confidence necessary to come off as an instigator of action. Instead, he looks befuddled and noticeably winded throughout the production. The only time he seemed to be having any real fun was during a fake death turn, during which he adlibbed a short parody of "And I Am Telling You (I'm Not Going)."

Krombach tries to portray Philia as more than a blank-faced simpleton, a potentially noble idea that simply doesn't work since she's really just a foil for the men. On the brighter side, Buntrock is perfectly pompous as Miles Gloriosus; Bowen is a starry-eyed Hero with a winning smile; Scherer brings incredible comic energy to the role of Hysterium; and Vinkler makes a credible transition in spirit from being broken and downbeat to spirited and silly upon learning of the arrival of his new "maid."