If there's one message that Bruce Dow's Pseudolus wants to make clear about what lies ahead in the story of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, it's that laughter in the Shakespeare Theatre this night will be aplenty.
The setup for the somewhat-overcomplicated story comes through the familiar song "Comedy Tonight," and it's here that we are introduced to the characters of the farce — and what a lot they are! The quick-witted opening number provides sight gags, puns, and plenty of asides, which of course is what drives the musical. Once finished, Pseudolus welcomes the audience and motions for the play to begin.
But not before first paying nod to Thespis, the first actor to ever don a stage, who Greek mythology says you must honor otherwise a production is cursed. Thespis must have been happy with Pseudolus' offering, as the musical delivers from its very first note. While not every joke lands, enough of them hit at the funny bone, and vocally, what we see here is extraordinary.
Set in ancient Rome and adapted from the Roman comedies of Plautus, the witty romp centers on the madcap mayhem surrounding Pseudolus, a slave whose only chance at freedom rests with his ability to get Philia, the genial virgin next door, to fall in love with his silly master Hero. That's no easy task as the ditzy blonde's hand is promised to a powerful warrior, but Pseudolus gets help along the way from friends and neighbors — plus a great deal of luck.
Dow's improv skills and sharp comedic timing serves him well as Pseudolus skillfully orchestrates the hilarious madness, which includes everything from mistaken identity to baby dolls flying through the air. By the time he starts channeling the spirit of Maria from The Sound of Music and scolding the "Captain" for not paying attention to his children Liesel, Frederick, and Marta, the audience is roaring.
The supporting cast has so many standouts, it's hard to do them all justice. Lora Lee Gayer is delightful as the clueless Philia, playing the dim-witted blonde to a tee; Tom Story makes Hysterium the perfect sidekick to Pseudolus, with on-target comic timing and scene-stealing songs in a reprise of "Lovely" (dressed as a woman, of course) and his part in the innuendo-anthem "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid"; then there's Steve Vinovich as Hero's father Senex, who provides new meaning to the phrase "dirty old man."
Add in Edward Watts as a Gaston-like Miles Gloriosus, Nick Verina as the lovable and naïve Hero, and a collection of beautiful and acrobatic women as the sex workers in the house next door, and there's rarely a beat of the story that wouldn't make the Greek gods proud.
Forum first came to Broadway in 1962, and the music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart have held up remarkably well for 50 years. Director Alan Paul's cast moves about quickly and never lets the physical comedy distract too much from the overall story.
Although the set appears to be just three simple cardboard-like houses, set designer James Noone incorporates several doors, traps, and windows to allow for plenty of activity within.
Once the show is over, it's obvious that Pseudolus kept his original promise as something funny happened all throughout the forum this evening.
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