PROVO — Slamming doors, cases of mistaken identity, characters disguising themselves as one another, clever puns and satirical comments on social class. It’s all there in the musical farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Inspired by the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus, the musical follows the story of a slave named Pseudolus (Jeffrey Blake) and his attempts to win his freedom by helping his young master Hero (Travis Wright) woo the girl next door, Philia (Hannah Roskelley), who happens to be a courtesan.
Farce is one of the most challenging types of comedy to pull off successfully, as timing and pacing must be impeccable, and the heightened characterizations must be stylized, yet dimensional and believable at the same time. Then for Forum all of this must be coupled with Sondheim’s challenging score and complex rhythms.
Unfortunately, this production could not quite find its stride opening night mainly due to the incoherent direction by Steven Aaron. Aaron failed to establish a consistent world in which the show lived. For example, there were no clear rules when actors were addressing the other actors on stage, when they were sharing an inner monologue, or when they were breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge and address the audience directly. Actors were left to their own devices to decide which of these options they would implore, making each song and much of the dialogue nebulous and confusing. Aaron also missed much of the humor in the script, making the general pacing of the show rather flat. This was most apparent in the Act II “chase sequence” when the energy was subdued and didn’t build the way it needed to reach the climax.
Also, much of the sexual humor or innuendos were ignored (perhaps intentionally to censor the material for the audience). Instead, Aaron chose to clumsily shoehorn his own humor into the show rather than work with the material. Most noticeable in the odd choice of inserting Lord of the Rings references and this “sign language” thing he had the actors do when delivering certain lines or describing events (which involved clapping, large arm gestures, knee patting, etc.) to accent their lines and other distracting bits that frequently detracted from the action or plot, reminiscent of how an “improv comedy troupe” would play the audience for laughs.
The actors usually created shallow caricatures or cartoon characters that were so exaggerated that they weren’t funny. And instead of making believable characters, the actors pre-planned their caricatures and delivered the same two or three of their character bits in every scene they were in for the entire show. This problem was prevalent across the entire cast, but most noticeable in Hysterium (Tyler Harris), the “hysterical” chief slave that is trying to keep maintain order in spite of the chaos. Harris’s exaggerated reactions and mugging killed the humor in near every scene he was in. Wright as Hero, the naïve boy who was in love with Philia, frequently broke the fourth wall to deliver lines to the audiences, and in “Love I Hear” he even danced with members on the front row. He did not listen or respond to his fellow cast mates and he and Roskelley lacked much needed chemistry. Lycus (Brian Kesler) was marginally better as he was more involved with his cast mates, but was given little to react to from the other actors. He attempted to find the humor in his lines and set up the jokes much better than other actors, and he didn’t exaggerate his character as much. This allowed him to create variety in his performance, which worked much better than the rest of the cast.
Vocally the cast did not have the technique to handle Sondheim’s score. David Lassetter, as the womanizing captain Miles Gloriosus, acted the part well and had the perfect look for the role, but failed to deliver on “Bring Me My Bride” as he struggled to hit his notes. Blake as Pseudolus frequently struggled to remember his lines in songs or to execute correct rhythms, and relied he instead on improvisation to cover these lapses, giving an unpolished performance.
The choreography by Melissa Aaron Higley was disappointing and reminiscent of high school show choir movement, with little more than poorly executed step-touches and pivot turns. The courtesan solo dances in “The House of Marcus Lycus” were especially weak as the dances were generic, and thus failed to enhance the individual personalities of the courtesans. Each movement felt stifled or stopped, giving an awkward feel or incompleteness to the choreography.
There were technical issues galore with the lighting (under the design of David Thorpe and Matt Boulter) and at times the lighting would go out completely due to some glitches in the system, causing actors to end up in the dark or improv lines about a “total eclipse.” Moreover, the sound wasn’t always balanced, and the intermission music was left on through several minutes of Act II. Hopefully the technical aspects will tighten as the run continues.
Julianna Blake was fantastic on the piano and handled Sondheim’s score with expert precision. I applaud theaters that use live musicians, even though piano, drums, flute, and cello didn’t give as full of a sound as needed to fully appreciate Sondheim’s orchestrations. And there were occasional tempo lags, most noticeable in “Impossible,” “That’ll Show Him,” and “That Dirty Old Man of Mine.”
Costumes (designed by Sadie Perkins) were sufficient and added to the comedy of the production with the short tunics and colorful pallet. However, the courtesan costumes were too conservative and unflattering. The set (designed by Dan Whiting) was decent for the space and establishing the location and farcical style of the show. However, more masking was needed for backstage and sight lines.
Being the Echo’s first musical, they have a ways to go to reach the same high caliber they’ve attained in many of their productions of straight plays. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum felt more like a comedy improv show than a musical farce. Hopefully, the actors and crew will improve as the run continues.