A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – Review

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(l to r) Luke Hamilton as Hero, Nicole Norton as Philia, Will Ledesma as Senex Photo credit: BCT Staff.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Book by: Burt Shevelov and Larry Gelbart
Music and Lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim
Directed by: Colton Berry
Choreographed by: Luke Hamilton
Company: Bayou City Theatrics
Run Dates: February 13 – March 1, 2015
Je ne sais quois. It’s a French term used to describe an intangible quality that makes something distinctive or attractive. It’s a term I kept coming back to while watching Bayou City Theatrics’ production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. More specifically, I kept coming back to why I couldn’t quite figure out what it was the production was lacking.
The building block elements were there. The singing voices in this musical are decent enough to very good. The acting is also on point in many cases. The set design on the teeny tiny stage is as clever as the matching costumes and makeup. Add in the award-winning, smartly comedic, tongue in check book by Burt Shevelov and Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim’s trademark delicious lyrics and memorable music, and you’d think this production would hum along nicely. But instead, the jokes fall flat most of the time and the wind is sucked out of the revelry we should feel for this thinking man’s farce. So what gives?

Let’s get the plot out of the way first so we can discuss what went wrong.  Pseudolus, an illiterate but savvy Roman slave desperately wants to purchase his freedom from his masters. Without the financial means to do this, he must find other bargaining tools. When his master and mistress go on a trip, he finds out that Hero, their none-too-bright son (also Psuedolus’ master) is smitten with a virginal courtesan named Philia living in the bawdy house next door run by Marcus Lycus.  Ignoring the fact that Lycus has sold Philia to a strapping captain by the name of Miles Gloriosus, Pseudolus strikes a bargain where he will be freed if he can procure the girl for his young Master. But nothing goes to plan in this pandemonium of a plot riddled with half-baked schemes, near misses, mistaken identities, a book that skewers social class and lyrics that tickle the linguistic sweet spot.

From the plot outline above, it doesn’t take great imagination to realize this is a show that relies on fast pace for the comedy to work. Timing, under Colton Berry’s direction, is perhaps the thing most working against this production. Everything feels several beats off. The slapstick of The Proteans (three chorus characters that morph into whatever roles are needed, be they soldiers or eunuchs) plods along in gawky fashion and just doesn’t have the energy to elicit laughs. The Tim Conway-esque old man shuffle gag that repeats itself throughout the play as Erronoius attempts to walk around Rome three times is painfully drawn out without any support from music or dialogue to help it along. Most notably, the story calls for several gag situations followed by pauses so that the fourth-wall breaking Pseudolus can mug his derision/boredom/astonishment for us. Instead of this being a bonding moment between character and audience, Berry’s lag on the uptake and the silence that underpins the moments feels stroppy and humorless.

If timing is the show’s downfall, energy is the tipping point over the edge. Forum is a big personality play with musical numbers screaming for charismatic performers to turn ridiculous ideas into laughable situations. Apart from a few on stage, the cast just didn’t have the gusto to pull it off. As Pseudolus, Whitney Zangarine has a lovely but thin voice far better suited to harmony than carrying off such show-stopping  numbers as the opening “Comedy Tonight” which sets the tone for the play. In addition to her vocal issues, Zangarine can’t quite conjure the impish Bravado of Pseudolus to its full extent. Yes she eye rolls and smiles devilishly and has a few funky dance moves, but her efforts simply don’t fill the shoes of this lead character to grand comedic effect. This lack of gut busing energy is much the same for the rest of the cast minus Berry himself as the terrifically squawky, high pitched Nu-Yawk accented slave Hysterium and the swooningly strong-voiced Nicole Norton-Slatnick as the uber floozy Philia. These two know how to milk a character and take them over the top without losing control. They do justice to Sondheim’s lyrical wizardry and our genuine laughter is their reward.

Berry also succeeds in making the cramped stage of the Kaleidoscope theatre more interestingly stylized than I’ve seen previously in this show. Choosing to dress the set in a kind of marbleized, dirty sheet look, Berry facades the three Roman houses in identical materials and colours, creating a crumbling look for this less than grand neighborhood setting. Carrying on this monochromatic effect, Berry’s costumes and makeup also take on the greyish hue with actors sooty powdered faces matching wonderfully with the set in a kind of clown cum ghost zombie look. Supported by Berry’s generous and stylish lighting, the whole effect is quite modern in a shabby chic architectural digest kind of fashion.

Luke Hamilton’s choreography makes decent use of the cramped space and has some bright moments such as the wonderfully silly and catchy ‘Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”’ number that has performers trolling through a dance scenario with added participants each go round. Less successful is his parade of courtesans who one by one show off their specialty. Here again, the lack of music and lag timing takes all the lascivious bite out of the endeavour.

As the madness of the show winds down to the happy ending we were promised in the opening act, there is no doubt that several ear worms were planted in my head despite the often less than boisterous deliveries in this production. It says much about the bouncy and biting score that even less than perfect productions can leave us with this happy aftermath. Berry has some splendid design ideas at work here and he himself provides one of the bright spots of the performance, but until he pulls the reins tighter and demand more from his cast at a faster clip, questions alluding to that nagging French saying will linger.

RATING

For Forum Lovers – It’s not a devastating departure, but neither is it the raucous, sexy, silly fun you love about this show. Berry’s vision for the look of the show is worth noting as is his performance. MAYBE SEE IT

For musical lovers – This is a fine but not special introduction to this chaotic and funny musical. You’ll be somewhat amused as you hum along. Pity that it isn’t going to blow you away. MAYBE SEE IT

For theatre junkies – Sure we love the music and lyrics and the character names delight (the name Gymnasia, the courtesan, alone makes me giggle every time) plus set and costume design like this deserves to be seen.  But whether you put the missing panache down to the intangible or figure out that the timing and energy just aren’t up to snuff, you’ll be better off fondly remembering this one on your own. SKIP IT

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