BWW Review: The Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts Summer Camp Presents Stephen Sondheim's Hilarious A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM at Ruth Eckerd Hall
When it comes to Tony Award snubbing, there are several artistic high crimes and misdemeanors. For instance, Fiorello! winning Best Musical over Gypsy, or the good Music Man besting the better West Side Story. Or how about this awful upset: Two Gentlemen of Verona (the since-forgotten musical) beating both Grease and Follies for the top honor. Perhaps worst of all is this: Even though A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM was Stephen Sondheim's first and most successful Broadway show as a composer and lyricist, and even though it would win six of its eight nominated Tony Awards in 1962-1963 (including Best Musical), Mr. Sondheim himself was not even nominated for his lyrics and score. A show that features some of the most beloved comic songs from the early 1960's--"Comedy Tonight," "Lovely," and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid"--wasn't even nominated for these iconic numbers. (For the record, Oliver! won that year for Best Score.) Broadway's greatest composer would have to wait almost a decade to receive his first Tony Award.
Considered by many as perhaps the funniest show of all time, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbert) doesn't seem like the first choice for a summer camp theatre production. Based on the farces of Plautus, it involves three houses in Ancient Rome over two thousand years ago: The House of Lycus (a brothel), the House of Senex (a family), and House of Erronius (an old man). A slave of the House of Senex, Pseudolus, makes a deal with his master, Hero, who is smitten with the virginal Philia: Pseudolus will ultimately obtain his freedom if he can get Philia and Hero together romantically. And from that, much mayhem ensues, including cross-dressing, mistaken identity, and yes, eunuchs. You haven't lived until you've seen a group of young girls, dressed like Jawas, portraying eunuchs; do they even know what a eunuch is?
The Marcia P. Hoffman School for the Arts at Ruth Eckerd is presenting this classic farce as their big summer camp production; it runs thru July 20th. Some of the most talented local teens have spent the past three to four weeks working on the show, learning the dances and the songs, and now it's time for the audience, many of whom had never heard of this show before, to enjoy this classic farce. Following the darkness of last year's brilliantly conceived Sweeney Todd, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM is a light, zany, snap-fast show that is perfect for young people. Although this production is not nearly as good as last year's powerful (and divisive) Sweeney Todd, it is certainly more of a blast for the audience. One parent told me that she hated the idea of them doing this particular show this year. But at intermission she had changed her tune. "I love it!" she told me. "It's so funny! I haven't laughed this much in a long time!"
It helps that there are so many talented youths up there, including a few that have to be singled out as major performers to watch in the future.
Leading the way is Kathrine Davis as Pseudolus, the part written for Phil Silvers but made famous by Zero Mostel in its first incarnation, and later by Whoopi Goldberg and Nathan Lane. And Ms. Davis can rival anyone when it comes to squeezing every last drop of comedy from the role. What makes it so special is her obvious electric joy in performing and her obvious mastery of comic timing. It's like she's bouncing off the walls with ideas; as the show goes on, she grows more and more frantically energetic. Wide eyed, looking not unlike Millie Bobby Brown, she has the pitter-patter of a 1930's comedienne, like Rosalind Russell on some heavy-duty stimulants. Ms. Davis was the Beadle in last year's Sweeney Todd, and though quite good there, she has come into her own here. It's astounding work and such a pleasure to watch--sort of a wise-cracking Roman Bugs Bunny B.C.E.
As the hysterical Hysterium, Bailey Walman once again showcases his versatility. The last time I saw him, he was slitting throats as the psychotic Sweeney Todd; here, he's a hilarious cartoon character run amuck. Part Roger Rabbit, part Ren, all funny. And when he dons a Shirley Temple wig, portraying a dead woman (you have to see the show to understand), he had the audience in stitches. After seeing these extreme parts--the foreboding killer-barber and now the flighty, screaming-Mimi Roman slave--it makes me wonder what's next for this massively talented young man.
And then there's Chris Cavazza as Miles Gloriosus. Imagine Gaston as portrayed by Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo in The Seven Samurai, and you will have an idea of the macho-wildness that Cavazza brings to the part. He stomps instead of walks, moving pelvis first. Cavazza can do more with the raising of a single eyebrow than many actors can do with their whole bodes. And his big song at the end of Act 1 (and the production's finest number), "Bring Me My Bride," zapped the show to life. It's some of the best work Cavazza has ever done.
As Domina, Caitlin Ostrowski is in fine form, with a marvelous voice showcasing a terrific belt. Cristian Torres is hilariously over the top as the bald Senex. (His bald wig fell off at one point of the show, and he and Walman got to showcase some bold improv chops when it happened.). Graham Mastro and Dior Dollmont work well together as the young lovers, Hero and Philia, and do well with their duet "Lovely." Jaime Kay is fine as Lycus, and Marco Camuzzi does a good job as the hapless, slow-moving and slightly blind Erronius, whose single gag throughout the show garners much laughter.
The ensemble (Prologs, Proteans, etc.) does reasonably well, though sometimes some are in character and others are more or less B.O.S. (Bodies on Stage). They have a lot of gags they are plowing through--some funny; some not--but they keep the show moving: Seaira Anderson, Hannah Laris, Emma Lotti, Kiana Sipe, Eva Campuzano, Christy Do, Colleen McManamom, Cameron Swago, Kyndall Small, Haylie Brito, Ashley Bronwing, Lily Crocamo, Grace Elliott, Illey George, Peyton Kressevich, Chloe Mastro, Jonah Mastro, Leah Nistok, Jacob Ramirez, Christian Ross, Joel Santana, Jessica Stumpf, Jake Tottle, Catalina Velasco, Bella Harvey and the talented Lindsey Fabian (who plays Domina on Saturday).
There are some wonderfully funny bits, including two Sweeney Todd references thrown in for good measure. There is an erotic pottery gag that is laugh-out-loud delightful. Some songs are beautifully realized, such as "I'm Calm" and "Free." That said, other songs left much to be desired, and what should be the show's best number--"Everybody Ought to Have a Maid"--didn't make much sense (there was a long pause for no reason at one point during it). The pacing in Act 1 seemed sluggish at times, while other moments went way too fast to properly capture the comedy (the young people will certainly learn comic timing through this experience); the show just needs to find its proper balance.
Jack Holloway's direction displays his usual excellence, getting the most from his enthusiastic young performers. Yohance Wicks' musical direction is tops with a live orchestra (though I wish the orchestra members were mentioned in the program). Best of all is Frank Chavez's stunning set, aided by Dustin Adams' strong lighting. The set is a work of art, like something out of the Lorax--Mr. Toad's Wild Ride set in Ancient Rome.
The costumes, on the other hand, make no sense. There's no consistency: Some kids look like they are wearing camp t-shirts, others in togas; few kids wear sandals, while most wear shoes more in line with a dance studio than with ancient times. Yes, it is a comedy with plenty of hilarious anachronisms, but there has to be some kind of plan to the costumes, some kind of order, especially when remembering the wardrobes of past years with this group (Beauty and the Beast, The Wizard of Oz, The Little Mermaid, Sweeney Todd). With the exception of the soldiers' attire, it all seems so haphazard, more appropriate for a middle school cafetorium production with no budget than the marvelous stage at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
By the way, on a side note, the ushers at Ruth Eckerd Hall were some of the nicest I have ever encountered, always with a smile and a helping hand. Their house manager should be very proud.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM promises a "comedy tonight," and you are guaranteed to laugh throughout. These are tough times for many, dark days, so any laughter is welcomed, especially with a group of kids who are learning, growing as performers and doing their very best. And being very funny to boot! The show is sometimes so hilarious that if you don't find yourself laughing at any of it, then you might want to try checking your pulse.