A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge brings originality to the timeless farce.

Conrad John Schuck, Jackie Hoffman, and Peter Scolari in <i>A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum</i>
Conrad John Schuck, Jackie Hoffman, and Peter Scolari in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
(© Jerry Lamonica)

Many funny things happened on the way to this Forum, as Bay Street Theatre‘s current production of Stephen Sondheim’s hit musical is rife with all the laughs and heart one could possibly want from a theatrical experience. Complete with acrobatics, contemporized Grecian adornments, and bawdy humor, director Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum takes the best of the original 1962 Broadway production and makes it her own.

Forum is a musical inspired by the farces of the Roman playwright Plautus. However, the story takes the farcical genre to epic levels, as a slave named Pseudolus tries with great difficulty to win his freedom by helping his young master, Hero, woo Philia, the virgin living next door. A cast that includes a variety of prostitutes, proteans, and a problematic patriarch gather on stage to introduce the “Comedy Tonight,” a show with something for everyone. Never has a lyric been more relevant.

Much like his predecessors in this role, Peter Scolari would surely be in the running for an an award for this performance if it were on the Great White Way. East End audiences are quite lucky that it is not; Bay Street’s more intimate setting easily spotlights Scolari’s charm and energy at every turn. Scolari, light on his feet, is clearly having a great time in a role that is frenetic and fun. The Bosom Buddy is joined by Conrad John Schuck as Senex, Hero’s sleazy womanizer of a father. It is a joy to see him demonstrate comedic prowess, especially after his more muted role in last season’s Nice Work If You Can Get It. Jackie Hoffman also lends her penchant for wacky snark and big-eyed reactions. The Broadway vet imbibes Senex’s jilted wife, Domina, as she chases him both physically and metaphorically throughout the show.

The casting choices for the entire ensemble are impeccable. Another standout among the group is Tom Deckman, a talented actor reminiscent of a young Paul Giamatti. Deckman’s proficiency in physical comedy is evident in his Hysterium, a slave to Senex and Domina. Clad in a fanny pack and spectacles, and forced to cross-dress and play dead amidst the insanity, his character’s name is especially appropriate. Deckman’s rendition of the song “I’m Calm” is one not to be missed (as he is anything but tranquil). Additionally, Lora Lee Gayer’s hysterical deadpanning as the brainless Philia is surely a sneak peek at a long career in stage comedy.

Dodge’s direction is well-orchestrated, especially with a large cast and a small stage. Much of the show involves running to and from locales, all of which is done in a creative fashion. Her inclusions of modern, localized references are appropriately timed and completely unexpected. Domina enters the action, her arms loaded with Tanger Outlet shopping bags. When Pseudolus warns everyone that the plague is a threat, he crazily shrieks about running to various places on Long Island. In a moment of his character’s insanity, Scolari also does an impression of Christopher Lloyd that is show-stopping in its humor. Dodge’s choreography, along with additional choreographic concepts from D.J. Salisbury, is intricately imaginative. Any scenes in which the Proteans mock, mimic, or simply join the action, are testaments to the artistic thought process behind the movement in the show.

Michael Schweikardt’s set is vibrant with bright primary colors. No space on the stage is left without boxy, Grecian spirals. Schweikardt accomplishes the task of constructing three adjacent houses complete with balconies in a very small space without making it feel cluttered or tight. Mike Billings outlines the doorways in Vegas-style lights, symbolic of the fresh version of the show that is being presented. Greg Wilson’s costumes are similar to those in most productions of Forum: pajama-like, slightly more detailed than those at a toga party. However, many of the actors wear eyeglasses and headpieces to boost the humor in their appearances.

Pseudolus sums up this imaginative approach to an old classic when he sings of “old situations, new complications, nothing portentous or polite; tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!” This is definitely a trip to the Forum worth taking.

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