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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Something familiar,
Something peculiar,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!
— Pseudolus and Company

Funny Thing. . .Forum
Charles C. Vogt
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
To be fair, let's say that a few funny things are happening on the way to the forum in the production now at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Whether you have seen A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum once, twice, or even thrice before, you will presumably be inclined to laugh again at the same hoary jokes and be titillated (love that word) anew by the bawdy and convoluted tomfoolery that is presumably taking place during a day in spring two hundred years before the Christian era.

As Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's witty and bright book aspires to give burlesque a bad name, this production under the direction of Mark Waldrop aspires to amuse us with the madcap chases and the obligatory parade of courtesans delecti. If his aspirations fall a little short, it may be that the current cast hadn't quite got into the full swing of things by opening night. Once the pace of the performances is picked up, as well as the execution of the slapstick, a good time will be had by all.

With generosity and forbearance, one could call the whole shebang a manic distillation and devastation of some old Roman comedies. If, however, your tolerance for sophisticated leering and simplistic pandering is limited, you might think twice or thrice about letting your more primitive instincts serve as your guide.

One's brain could be fazed (or is it dazed?) by a plot that finds freedom conniving Pseudolus (Paul C. Vogt) enlisting the aid of cross-dressing slave Hysterium (John Scherer) to help him make a match between Philia (the very "lovely" Chelsea Krombach), a recently purchased virgin in a house of courtesans, and Hero (Justin Bowen) the equally virginal and perhaps too "lovely" son of Hysterium's master. You could forget all this and just ogle the sexy courtesans who dance, wiggle and undulate in the ga ga getups designed by Matthew Hemesath. Ray Klausen designed the cartoon-style setting in which we see the brightly colored front of three Roman houses.

A good deal of our pleasure rests in the hands, feet and facial expressions of Vogt as Pseudolus, the manipulative-to-a-fault master slave of ceremonies and that of Scherer as Hysterium, whose name tells all. Diplomas are still pending for these two students from the gags and giggles school of dramatic art. It is plain that these gentlemen, particularly when left unencumbered by the racy racing about of the variously toga-clad and semi-clad citizenry of ancient Rome, are still working on their timing and their interplay.

The task they have to rise to the level of Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford in the original 1962 production, or the likes of Phil Silvers and Larry Blyden in the 1972 revival or Nathan Lane and Mark Linn-Baker in the even more hilarious 1996 revival is a formidable one. Vogt, who is making his Paper Mill debut, is displaying more girth than he is conveying the craftily executed glee that the role requires. Best known as a star of television's MADtv, he is amiable, but not nearly funny enough to keep us howling as we should. Scherer is closer to the mark as Hysterium, the house servant with a penchant for smelling trouble and not avoiding it. In many an instance, he proves to be this production's most valuable contributor of farcical excess.

In supporting roles, Stephen Berger and Greg Vinkler were consummately perplexed as citizens Marcus Lycus and Senex and Beth McVey was (as she should be) a scene-stealer as Senex's battleaxe of a wife. Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics were destined to get better as his career developed, but this 1962 score is charming and happily pun-filled to the brim. What ultimately makes Forum so enduring and on occasion even endearing is that it is all so seriously silly.

Editor's Note: I would add to the list of hard to compete with memories of previous productions and performers, last summer's all male production starring Christopher Fitzgeral and directed by his wife Jessica Stone. Click here for review.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Mark Waldrop

Cast: Ryan Dietz, Michael Timothy Howell, Bret Shuford (The Proteans) Justin Bowen (Hero), Chelsea Krombach (Phillia), Greg Vinkler (Senex), Beth McVey (Domina), John Scherer (Hysterium), Stephen Berger (Marcus Lycus), Paul C. Vogt (Pseudolus), Kristine Bendul (Tintinabula), Chondra L. Profit (Panacea), Anne Otto, Lara Seibert (The Geminae), Kristine Covillo (Vibrata), Liz McKendry (Gymnasia), Chet Carlin (Erronius), Stephen R. Buntrock (Miles Gloriosus).
Scenic Design: Ray Klausen
Costume Design: Matthew Hemesath
Lighting Design: F. Mitchell Dana
Sound Design: Randy Hansen
Music Supervisor: Tom Helm
Musical Director: Ed Goldschneider
Choreographer: Vince Pesce
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission
Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ (973) 376 - 4343
Tickets: $25.00 - $92.00
Performances: Wednesdays at 7:30 PM; Thursdays at 1:30 PM and 7:30 PM; Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 1:30 PM and 8 PM; Sundays at 1:30 PM and 7 PM.
Previews began 03/16/11. Opened 03/20/11. Closes 04/10/11
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 03/20/11
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Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Comedy Tonight / Pseudolus, Proteans, Company
  • Love / Hear Hero
  • Free /Pseudolus, Hero
  • The House of Marcus Lycus /Lycus, Pseudolus, Hero, Courtesans
  • Lovely /Philia, Hero
  • Pretty Little Picture/ Pseudolus, Hero, Philia
  • Everybody Ought to Have a Maid /Senex, Pseudolus, Hysterium, Lycus
  • I'm Calm /Hysterium
  • Impossible / Senex, Hero
  • Bring Me My Bride /Miles, Pseudolus, Courtesans, Proteans
Act Two
  • That Dirty Old Man/ Domina
  • That'll Show Him /Philia
  • Lovely (Reprise) /Pseudolus, Hysterium
  • Funeral Sequence /Miles, Pseudolus, Courtesans, Proteans
  • Comedy Tonight (Finale) /Company

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