BWW Review: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM at Theatre Harrisburg
The name Stephen Sondheim is one that conjures excitement in many a theatre enthusiast. His most popular works, such as INTO THE WOODS and SWEENEY TODD, thrive on scathing social commentary and twisting melodies that only the more experienced musicians can follow. However, as this reviewer has come to realize, Sondheim lets his funny bone shine in his lesser known musicals. Theatre Harrisburg brings one of these unfairly forgotten shows to life with their current production of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, and reminds the audience that musicals can be more than drama and heartbreak. In fact, as the opening number "Comedy Tonight" suggests, FORUM is a far cry from tragedy.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM features music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, as well as a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. The show first opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre on May 8th, 1962, and ran for 964 performances before closing on August 29th, 1964. The original Broadway production featured Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, and David Burns among others, and was favored greatly at the 1962 Tony Awards. FORUM was the recipient of the award for Best Author (Shevelove and Gelbart), Best Leading Actor in a Musical (Mostel), Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Burns), Best Director (George Abbott), and Best Musical. The show enjoyed several revivals decades after its initial Broadway run, and was adapted into a motion picture in 1966. A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM centers around Pseudolus, a Roman slave longing for his freedom. In order to earn independence, he strikes a bargain with his young master, Hero; if Pseudolus can help Hero win the heart of a girl he has seen in the window of the courtesan house next door, he will be set free. Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems, and Pseudolus soon finds himself caught in a web of lies bound to unravel at any moment. This is where the fun begins.
No great farcical comedy would be complete without someone pulling the strings, and this is the purpose that Pseudolus serves. He is played by Marc Lubbers, who delivers an incredibly enjoyable performance. While beginning the show a bit in need of energy, Lubbers quickly gains his momentum in the role of trickster, and embodies the mischievous nature of his character. He is intelligent, cunning, and full of an easy showmanship that makes him perfect for the role as puppet master. He craves independence, and will stop at nothing to make his dream a reality. Lubbers often highlights the manipulative side to his character but still maintains a sense of likability; we want to see him victorious no matter how morally questionable his actions might be, and this the mark of a versatile actor.
Pseudolus is a man who enjoys the spontaneity and unpredictability of life, and Lubbers's character choices make the free-spirited nature of his character very well known. He employs a variety of facial expressions and large physical movements in order to make his performance successful, and this helps facilitate Pseudolus's endless confidence. His character can whip out a lie at the drop of a hat, and Lubbers's portrayal of Pseudolus leaves the audience almost in awe at his ability to weave a tale out of nothing. Lubbers is clearly comfortable onstage, and possesses a more than adequate understanding of the comedic timing necessary for farce. Additionally, Lubbers exercises strong vocal talent, especially in numbers such as "Comedy Tonight," "Free," and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid."
Every prankster needs a partner in crime, and Pseudolus's fellow slave Hysterium reluctantly finds himself playing this role. Portrayed at Theatre Harrisburg by Eric Mansilla, Hysterium very much lives up to his name. Mansilla's character often drowns himself in worry and panic as a result of his compulsive desire to follow the rules. He is obedient and doting upon his masters, and dons a proper, righteous, self-described "pillar of virtue" persona that marks him as the very opposite of Pseudolus. Mansilla's use of big expressions and grand physicality are some of the very best in the show, and his line delivery nearly always hits its mark. He completely embodies the worrisome, flustered tendencies of his characters, often reaching the point of hysterics that his name implies, and this makes him incredibly entertaining to see onstage. Mansilla expertly portrays a stick in the mud while also allowing his character to experience great moments free of inhibition, and it is in these moments where we truly love Hysterium. His attempts at nonchalance are just as enjoyable as his fits of worry, especially in the number, "I'm Calm," where Mansilla also showcases a wonderful voice.
Mansilla and Lubbers make just as great a team as their characters do; they feed off of each other's polar opposite personality to make an unlikely duo that succeeds in creating numerous instances of confusion, miscommunication, and outright comedy as they work together in ways Hysterium and Pseudolus may previously have never thought possible. Hysterium is dragged along into Pseudolus's plots, while Pseudolus finds himself now in charge of wrangling a pretentious slave who couldn't tell a lie to save his life. These characters quickly become lovable, and they are team that the audience enjoys rooting for.
Star-crossed lovers are the center of many a musical, and FORUM is no exception. Hero and Philia are the young lovers who seem destined to be apart, as Philia is a courtesan who has already been sold off to Miles Gloriosus, a military captain in need of a wife. However, they refuse to let the future ruin their time together, no matter how brief and often confusing it may be. Hero and Philia are played by Alec Michael Brashear and Aubrey Krepps respectively, and the two of them make a lovely pair. Brashear's Hero often has a dreamy look in his eye, a result of having fallen madly in love with Philia. He embodies naivety and youth, and often shows a positive, enthusiastic outlook on life that sometimes contradicts the rest of the character's views. He has much to experience, and this comes across very well in his character's portrayal. Brashear plays Hero with a kind of purity that convinces the audience he could do no wrong. His solo, "Love, I Hear," displays a deep sincerity that immediately wins the audience's heart, and Brashear uses this opportunity to let his vocal talent shine. While he is at times in need of a bit more energy onstage, Brashear's Hero is endearing and filled to the brim with hope, and Philia is very much the same.
Aubrey Krepps's Philia matches Brashear's Hero in innocence and naivety, and practically radiates happiness. She is upbeat and plucky, and has clearly fallen equally as head-over-heels for Hero. As Philia points out in her comedic yet beautifully performed number, "Lovely," she appears to have no purpose in life but to please others, and often displays the doting, obedient nature that her character has been raised to adhere by. However, Krepp's Philia possesses a bit of disillusioned rebelliousness that comes from her desire to be more than just a pretty face, and this often comes to light in the most inconvenient of moments, adding humorous complications into the mix for Pseudolus and Hysterium. Krepps portrays her character with both absent-minded tendencies as well as sincerity and love, and this makes her the perfect match for Hero while also leaving both of them more than a bit impressionable and easily manipulated. Their relationship, while fast and tumultuous, is one that makes the audience practically sigh with happiness at the thought of young love.
Senex and Domina are Hero's parents, and are as far from young love as a couple can possibly be. Their marriage is comically strained, as Senex has been visibly worn down by his overbearing wife while Domina no longer trusts her husband to be left alone. Senex and Domina are played at Theatre Harrisburg by Eric Dundore and Pam Eusi respectively, and provide a humorous contrast to Hero and Philia's blossoming romance. Dundore's Senex has grown weary and complicent in his relationship, and he phsyicalizes this submissive state very well. However, Dundore also gets his own moments to showcase his character's personality apart from his wife in moments where Senex is given the opportunity to experience real passion again. Here, Dundore shows the sheer happiness that Senex possesses away from his wife, and the pleasure he receives from being able to live his life as he sees fit. Dundore's Senex is eager and enthusiastic on his own, and enjoys the simple things in life. He also wields a considerable amount of vocal talent, especially in numbers such as "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" and "Impossible."
Pam Eusi's Domina is one who knows exactly what she wants exactly when she wants it. She is high-maintenance and demanding, and this has left her with a reputation that strikes fear into the hearts of those who know her. Her husband and son seem particularly wary of her presence, but Hysterium's similar pretentious attitude makes he and Domina two of a kind. Eusi's Domina thrives on control, and is used to being in charge around her household. However, while she claims to love her husband, she laments the lack of trust she now holds for him in the number, "That Dirty Old Man." Eusi possesses strong vocal ability, but could perhaps benefit from a bit more enthusiasm in regards to physicality and line delivery. However, she is still vastly entertaining, and embraces the vivacious nature of her character.
Notable performances also come from Adam Estep as Marcus Lycus, Thomas G. Hostetter as Erronius, and Sam Krepps as Miles Gloriosus. Lycus serves as the Roman city's resident courtesan merchant, and makes it clear from the start that money is his primary motivation. Estep's Lycus is greedy and prioritizes business above anything else. However, business has not provided him with nerves of steel, and Estep does an excellent job at highlighting the remarkably (and comedically) cowardly traits of his character, especially by way of facial expressions. Lycus is, to put it frankly, a wimp, and this serves as a welcome addition to the already entertaining cast of characters. Another stand-out character comes in the form of Erronius, played by Thomas G. Hostetter. As an elderly man searching for his children (who were stolen by pirates in infancy), Hostetter's Erronius hugely entertains the audiences with his gullibility and confusion. The "old man" routine is one that audiences have seen many a time, but Hostetter's performance reminds them why the trope is so vastly enjoyable. Erronius is senile, but determined to find his children, and so the audience hopes to see him succeed. Finally, Sam Krepps plays Miles Gloriosus, the infamous military captain who has purchased Philia in order to take her as his wife. Krepps's Gloriosus is the epitome of self-indulgent. He is vain, he is loud, and he is overflowing with confidence. Krepps allows his character to take himself far too seriously, and there is where the humor lies. He employs an attitude full of swagger and is never afraid to go over the top in terms of movement and vocals. In fact, Krepps sports quite an impressive voice in the numbers, "Bring Me My Bride" and "Funeral Sequence," and employs melodrama in its most humorous definition.
The ensemble of any farce musical is just as instrumental to its success as the leading cast, and Theatre Harrisburg's company of FORUM certainly proves this. The show features three Proteans, played by Ayat Muhammad, Brandom Rubinic, and Joel Sattazahan, who serve a variety of purposes throughout the show ranging from soliders to senators. They are particularly versatile and make the most use of physical humor throughout the show, much to their benefit. The Proteans are always reliable for a laugh, and the audience loses count of how many different forms they take. They keep the humor coming even in the relatively more somber moments of the show, and this is always appreciated. The rest of the ensemble is equally impressive when seen as the courtseans, whom Lycus attempts to sell to Psedulous during his search for Philia. Each of them are unique, but just as talented as the one before them. The choreography of the show, albeit a bit scarce, is executed very well by the ensemble, and group numbers are vocally stunning. Songs such as "Comedy Tonight," "Bring Me My Bride," and "Finale" are incredible to hear, and remind the audience of the value of a talented group of ensemble members.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM hosts all varieties of humor, whether it be subtle puns or in-your-face slapstick comedy. The cast of Theatre Harrisburg's rendition of this lesser-known Sondheim piece work in tandem frequently and expertly to bring an endlessly entertaining show that tickles each and every funny bone. The plot twists and turns in outrageous ways, and the company of FORUM takes each one in stride, hitting nearly all the marks. It is a show that warms the heart and brings the laughs, and proves that musical theatre can be, in fact, a funny thing.
Presented by Theatre Harrisburg through November 19th. Next is GOD OF CARNAGE. Visit www.theatreharrisburg.com.