The book, by Larry Gelbart and Barry Shrevelove, serves mostly as set up to the music of Stephen Sondheim. The light, breezy score offers few vocal challenges and features several memorable songs that leave an audience humming. Though set in ancient Rome, the show is all about love -- young, blossoming love; old, comfortable love; even the love of freedom and self-expression -- and all the funny situations associated with the pursuit of love.
St. Louis University Theatre embraces the light-hearted theme of "Comedy Tonight" in a spirited and youthful production that, while decidedly amateur, mostly succeeds in hitting the right note. The student cast is well chosen and eager to please, and director Alec Wild does a nice job of allowing them to mine the show's comedic potential while avoiding a chaotic mess.
Andy Southern brings considerable energy to his role as Pseudolus, the servant willing to go to great lengths to secure his freedom while showing a genuine fondness for both the young Hero and fellow servant Hysterium, a slapstick friendly Daniel Guttas. Hero, played with wide-eyed awe by Luke E. Siddens, exudes the promise and uncertainty of youth in equal measure and is nicely complemented by the lovely Maddie K. Spruce as love interest, Philia. Katy Keating, as Marcus Lycus, has a strong voice and sure sense of comic timing, while Joseph K. Kercher's Miles Gloriosus towers, literally, over the rest of the cast with a cartoonish quality that hits the mark.
The other cast members all have at least one nice moment, but it is the lusty courtesans and hustling Proteans that nearly steal the show. As the Proteans, Kelly Barabasz, Samantha Moyer and Ryan A. Lawson-Maiske are everywhere, all at once. They move together in quick, coordinated steps, whether they're changing sets, wrangling cast members, or setting up the next comic bit. The three provide delightful little moments that enhance, rather than steal from, the action on stage.
It is refreshing to see young actors more concerned with timing and the audience's enjoyment than with drawing attention or stealing the spotlight with self-absorbed focus. From the conniving but affable servants, to the love struck teens and love weary adults, to the ever-versatile, ever-present Proteans, the entire cast fearlessly embraces the comic exaggeration of their roles.
The humor in the show comes at the audience in rapid-fire succession and is just bawdy enough, hinting and teasing out the laughter. Some serious themes regarding slavery, freedom and even education are alluded to, but the focus is clearly on the humor and folly of love. The youthful cast is certainly sophisticated enough to get all the double entendres and sexual references, but they know when to direct focus and when to just let the audience catch on, creating an enjoyable balance that makes the most of the show's humor.
The staging and choreography keep the pace brisk, moving quickly from set-up to song and ensuring that there are no lingering sour notes. Colorful, flexible costumes and simple but effective lighting and stagecraft complement the production, and director Wild creates a number of lovely, picturesque moments in every scene. The singing was, unfortunately, quite uneven and frequently overpowered by the musical accompaniment, and the show lacked the polish of a professional production. There were several moments when I expected a soaring note or vocal crescendo to top off a song, and it was simply not delivered.
Luckily, the inherent charm of the musical and the comedic eagerness of the ensemble kept the show moving forward without hesitation, alleviating most of my disappointment. All things considered, St. Louis University's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" makes for an enjoyable, if not remarkable, evening of musical theater. The show runs through November 24, 2013 at St. Louis University's Xavier Hall, for reservations or more information, call 314-977-3327.