New Line's "Forum" is dazzlingly funny, time-tested comedy
By Chuck Lavazzi
Since 1991 Scott Miller’s New Line Theatre has been pumping out brilliant productions of edgy, mostly very modern musicals. Occasionally they’ll revive a grand old classic (e.g., "Anything Goes," from the ‘30’s). But now they’re going way, way back. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" premiered in 1962. And it reaches back twenty-two centuries! Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart picked juicy plot devices and characters from the Roman playwright Plautus. Plautus himself stole from what the earlier Greeks called “New Comedy”. To us it looks a lot like the old Borscht Belt and Vaudeville comic sketches. This is truly time-tested comedy. And at New Line it’s still dazzlingly funny!
Kent Coffel plays Pseudolus, a slave who is desperate to buy his way to freedom. In this role Coffel follows in the very large comic footprints of Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers. He triumphs in the role. He gets every laugh, and his singing voice is far better than either of those two giants.
Pseudolus is slave to young Hero, the son of old Senex and his shrewish wife Domina. Next door to this family is a bawdyhouse, run by Lycus, where the newest arrival is Philia, a beautiful young girl—still innocent—who is being trained in the ways of a courtesan. She’s an apprentice or an intern, if you will. Hero, who is himself massively innocent, falls in love with her. He promises Pseudolus his freedom if he can arrange their marriage. BUT--the girl has already been sold to Miles Gloriosus, the braggart warrior, who will come any time now to collect his property.
The clever Pseudolus is aided by his friend Hysterium, another slave. One ploy after another falls apart. There’s a great and merry confusion, with Hero’s father and the warrior both tripping over their own lust for the girl. There are chases! Disguises! Mistaken identities! At one point there are three identically gowned and veiled “Philias”: the true Philia (slight and graceful), Domina (Hero’s mother), and Hysterium (a guy, brawny, bearded, and black).
Can this be comedy? You better believe it!
The entire cast is strong. Chris Moore fills Hysterium with energy and a kind of cheerful panic. The handsome Ian McCreary gives a gently nerdy touch to Hero—and his voice is quite lovely. Sarah Wilkinson, who did such marvels in New Line’s recent Nine, plays Philia. Such a large and beautiful voice in that small frame!
Ann Hier Brown brings great power to the role of Domina, and her diction is astonishingly fine. Danny Brown (Ann’s real-life husband) is simply perfect as the Miles Gloriosus. I can’t imagine a better one.
Robert Doyle plays Senex, the father. He gives it a wistful charm—terrified of his wife and hoping for one last little innocent indiscretion. Lycus, the procurer, is played with great zest by Jason Blackburn. And Gary Cox gets lovely laughs as old Erronius, who has spent his life grieving over the kidnapping of his infant son and daughter.
Nathan Hakenewerth, Brittany Kohl Hester, and Aarin Kamphefner are billed as “Proteans”, and like Proteus (that shape-changer of mythic fame) they frantically, comically change from courtesans to soldiers to mourners, etc.
There is much great Sondheim music, though the only number with which you’re probably familiar is the opener, “Comedy Tonight!” Frequently what is sounding like an ordinary show-tune suddenly becomes distinctly Sondheim, with his matchless musical wit—syncopations, intriguing chord structures. There’s polyphony in “The House of Marcus Lycus”; there is rich, stirring beauty in the “Funeral Sequence” for the supposedly dead Philia.
The set, by Rob Lippert, is simple but charming, and it has lots of doors, windows and bushes for popping in and out of. Eileen Engel did the marvelous costumes, Matt Stuckel gives us very lively and colorful lighting, and choreographer Chris Kernan keeps the stage aswirl in some very comic dance.
It's another bright success for directors Scott Miller and Chris Kernan. It’s "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and it’s happening at New Line Theatre through June 24.