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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

The Arden Theatre Company tackles this hilarious musical with mixed results. logo
Tony Braitwhaite, Caroline Dooner, and Jarrod Lentz
in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forun
(Photo © Mark Garvin)
The ancient Romans were terrific at constructing roads, building palaces, and conquering tribes, but where theater is concerned, let's just say that their contributions have not been nearly as long-lasting as their architecture. Nevertheless, the comedies of the Roman playwrights Terence and Plautus inspired composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettists Larry Gelbart and Bert Shevelove to create the hilarious 1962 musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which is now being given a good-natured production by the Arden Theatre Company.

In Roman comedy, the stage typically represents a street backed by two-story homes, and the plots nearly always turn on misunderstandings of some kind. The stock characters include the rebellious son, the money-obsessed older man, and the clever slave who concocts a scheme in order to assist his master. Inevitably, the scheme goes awry, forcing the slave to hatch increasingly complicated and ludicrous plans that invariably lead to major complications.

Forum copies this scenario to the letter. The plot concerns Hero (Jarrod Lentz), the young son of the domineering Domina (Mary Martello) and the beleaguered Senex (Tom McCarthy), who is in love with the virginal courtesan Philia (local high school senior Caroline Dooner, in a tremendously impressive debut). The problem is that Philia is already promised to the war hero Miles Gloriosus (the splendid Jeffrey Coon), whose name reflects his inflated ego. Desperate to win Philia's hand, Hero promises freedom to his slave Pseudolus (Tony Braithwaite) if he will aid him in procuring Philia's love. Of course, Pseudolus agrees, and he soon initiates a plot that involves a Cretan plague, a magic potion, a seemingly deceased bride, and so on.

Forum has remained popular for more than 40 years because of Sondheim's brilliant score, one of his most appealing and accessible, and Gelbart and Shevlove's uproarious book. There is no joke so crude or broad that the authors declined to use it in their unrelenting desire to divert us. But some humor that was acceptable in 1962 is now dated, most notably the show's depiction of women as overbearing, dim-witted, or hyper-sexual. Effeminate men are likewise employed for amusement, with Forum's trio of eunuchs flitting about the stage like butterflies who have overdosed on estrogen. Fortunately, the tone of director Terrence J. Nolen's production is so good-natured that it's doubtful many people will be offended by such political incorrectness.

The cast is an assemblage of local favorites, but Nolen's insistence on using Philly-based talent proves to be a double-edged sword. McCarthy is sensational as the henpecked husband lugging his wife's bust about the countryside but he struggles with Senex's songs, especially the "Impossible" duet with the sweet-voiced Lentz. To a lesser degree, the same problem extends to Braithwaite; he can carry a tune, but his range is severely limited and his singing grows monotonous in the second act. On the plus side, his comic timing is impeccable, and he has the uncanny ability to command a stage without overshadowing his fellow actors.

But the production's premier performance is that of Richard Ruiz as the aptly named slave Hysterium. An Arden regular before he joined a variety of major touring companies, Ruiz -- who is both a charismatic comic actor and a fine vocalist -- makes a triumphant return with a whirlwind performance that ranks among the year's best.

Under Nolen's regimented direction, even the show's most maniacal moments of physical comedy are executed with ease; the faux funeral of Philia is a master class in high-octane farce. Donald Eastman's set is a colorful playground of crooked alleys and swinging doors. The five-piece orchestra occasionally sounds a bit thin, but that's is a minor quibble. While this Forum isn't on the same level as the Arden's ferociously frightening Sweeney Todd last season, it ultimately delivers on Sondheim's promise to give us "Comedy Tonight."

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