Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May, 2004
The Mac-Haydn has billed its 2004 season as “Fantastic Fun” and has launched it with a bang with an hilarious and energetic production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
My companion for the evening, who had never seen the show before, turned to me at intermission and said, “Well, they certainly deliver what they promise.” I inquired what that was and she said “Comedy.” The opening number, a late addition to the show in its pre-Broadway tryouts, does indeed tell you exactly what to expect: “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.” And “Forum” is a show that is unabashedly comedic. There is no attempt at any real character development or human emotion. The stage is filled with comic types and they are set loose to conduct slapstick mayhem for a couple of hours.
Based loosely on the surviving comedies by the Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (circa 254-184 BCE) Forum gets its laughs from the very roots of humor. I had occasion to read English translations of three Plautine comedies - Pseudolus, Miles Gloriosus, and Mostellaria - which had strong influences on Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove when they were writing the script for Forum and was struck, as they were, by the strong similarities between what ancient Romans found funny and the vaudeville humor of the early 20th century. Several legendary comics from the vaudeville era have performed in “Forum” and only now, as that generation passes, are we getting younger performers bringing fresh interpretations to these roles.
At the Mac-Haydn the leading role of Pseudolus, the wily slave who will do ANYTHING to earn his freedom, is assayed by the youthful and energetic Robert Anthony Jones who gives his all to the show. I have to confess that he was not my favorite partly because I am a big fan of David Bondrow, cast here as second banana Hysterium, and would rather have seen him in the leading role, and partly because Jones reminds me of the late Zero Mostel to whom I never really cottoned up. Mostel originated the role of Pseudolus on Broadway in 1962, for which he won a Tony, and reprised it in the dreadful film version of the show in 1966. Obviously Mostel is much admired and I am in the minority in not caring for his performance, just as I am in the minority finding Jones less than stellar. The audience with whom I saw the show was completely taken with Jones and the whole production and I risk being run of town on a rail for expressing a contrary opinion. In my book Jones was very good, but he was not heart-stoppingly great.
And Bondrow was not particularly well suited to the role of Hysterium. He didn’t come into his own until the second act when he was allowed to stop dithering and prance about in drag. Yes, David Bondrow in drag is one of the funnier things you will ever see. Definitely worth the price of admission. And not bad looking either.
Why did I find Jamie Price so hilarious as the painfully ancient and doddering Erronius? I have no idea, but he was undoubtedly the funniest little old man I have seen since Tim Conway on The Carol Burnett Show. Every time he lifted his head I was convulsed with laughter.
The always entertaining Kathy Halenda is a hoot as the domineering Domina. Michael Shiles is a lovable teddy bear as her hopelessly henpecked husband Senex. His absolute delight at being apparently propositioned by a beautiful young virgin was actually touching. What middle-aged man (or woman for that matter) wouldn’t get a kick out of some young thing suddenly finding them attractive?
Chad Heuschober and Katie Kuhlenschmidt are both absolutely lovely and vacuous, which is exactly what the script requires them to be, as the young lovers Hero and Philia. But I wish Kuhlenschmidt had not been forced to wear a rather bedraggled wig. With all of the gorgeous costumes the Mac-Haydn manages to put on parade they do seem to trot out some awfully tired wigs. After this show it is time for that one to retire.
Heuschober displays a very nice set of legs in one of the most dangerously brief of togas, as the script dictates he must. Another handsome pair of male limbs is on display by Geoffrey Murphy as the pompous and swaggering war hero Miles Gloriosus. In fact Murphy is one impressive hunk of manhood with a fine voice and some acting chops to boot. I am looking forward to seeing him in other roles this summer (saying that I was looking forward to seeing more of him would have been downright indecent!)
Forum is all about nubile young ladies in skimpy togas, and the Mac-Haydn provides a whole herd, costumed in an assemblage of Jimm Halliday’s more inventive creations. They perform some heart-stopping splits and high kicks. The male chorus, dubbed the Proteans, is not quite as flashy, but they manage to pull of a good tumbling move early on in the show. It is always fun to see the new chorus kids come into their own over the course of the summer season, and it looks like the Mac-Haydn has once again picked a healthy crop of young talent.
It is impossible not to have fun at this show. It is on the bawdy side, but ultimately Forum is much cleaner than most of what we get for mass entertainment these days. No four-letter words, no nudity, just big, silly, fantastic fun.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs through June 6 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004