Something for students of Sondheim. Something for lovers of shtick. Something for supporters of South Florida theatre. “Something for everyone – a comedy tonight!” MNM theatre company knocks A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum out of the Coliseum at the Rinker Playhouse, part of the Kravis complex.
It is thought of as Sondheim’s first musical for which he wrote both the lyrics and the music. It is and it isn’t. His first such attempt, Saturday Night, was written eight years earlier, but it never made it to Broadway at the time (although that was where it was headed) as the Producer suddenly died and the bankroll evaporated. It reflected his youth of being only 22, a traditional musical, so unlike his later innovative works. Still, the unproduced musical put him on the radar scope and he was soon sought out as a lyricist, with such shows as West Side Story and Gypsy.
Sondheim however wanted to be a composer-lyricist; thus, indeed, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum IS his first Broadway credit in both capacities. For any Sondheim fan, it is a must see musical for that reason alone. It clearly reflects his genius as a wordsmith, although one can also detect his unique musical gift incubating, particularly in the duets. And it is the lyrics and “the book” by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (of M*A*S*H fame) that made, and continues to make this early Sondheim work a success. It unfolds at a hilarious frenetic pace and it immediately grabs the audience’s attention with “Comedy Tonight."
The mad cap farce involves a conniving Roman slave (Pseudolus) who wants his freedom while his master (Hero) wants the virginal girl next door (Philia), and so the slave concocts a plan to achieve his master’s desire IF he will give him his freedom. Sounds pretty straightforward except every complication known to vaudevillian theatre is thrown in the way.
So, kudos to MNM Productions for bringing Sondheim’s vintage, formative work to the Rinker Playhouse. MNM’s mission is to “showcase talented Florida-based actors, Equity and non-Equity alike, live musicians and a top-notch crew of designers and technicians.” With this show, mission accomplished! It is a professional production in every way, particularly due to the talented cast whose voices soared in the ensemble musical numbers.
Johnbarry Green who we have seen perform locally at the Maltz and at Palm Beach Dramaworks, plays the iconic part of Pseudolus (Sondheim originally thought of the fast talking Phil Silvers when he was writing it, but it was Zero Mostel who first played the part on stage and in the movie so it is he who is traditionally identified as Pseudolus). It’s a tall order and the entire production depends on Green’s ability to successfully pull off this buffoonish role and sing and dance and basically knock himself out for 2-1/2 hours. Within minutes he has the audience laughing so that possible hurdle is comfortably cleared. In fact, throughout the performance Green shows his comic physicality and even had to ad lib on stage when he almost fell off a bench, turning to the audience who drew in its breath in anticipation, saying “It’s OK, don’t worry!!” not missing a beat. Only live theatre can convey such a special moment.
Green is all over the stage throughout the production, just one of the many details of the show’s complex choreography so seamlessly arranged by Laura Plyler. But in Johnbarry Green’s performance, “a star is born.” He has all the acting and comic chops and a rousing voice that enhances his performance.
J Savage plays Hero the young master who is so naively induced into Pseudolus’ increasingly complicated scheme with wide eyed wonder of innocence, his heart set on having the virginal Philia who was entrancingly played by the beautiful Meg Frost.
Hero’s father and mother were skillfully performed by Troy Stanley as the lecherous Senex, clearly carrying the burden of being the henpecked husband of Domina who Aaron Bower plays up as a shrew to be feared. The pivotal role Hysterium is truly hysterically acted by Michael Scott Ross. He is not on the stage for a moment without a laugh. Terry Hardcastle plays the owner of the house of courtesans, Marcus Lycus, who is willing to agree to any of Pseudolus’ plans as long has he is not in jeopardy. The character Erronius is condemned to wander around the stage most of the night looking for his children who were stolen as infants by pirates. Paul Thompson’s portrayal of the old man received greater laughs after each turn around the 7 hills surrounding Rome. And his plight is part of the show’s resolution.
Another star in the show bursts forth near the end of the first act, the arrival of Miles Gloriosus, a Roman Captain who has a claim on Phila (part of the plot’s complication). Miles is indeed gloriously played by Sean William Davis. (Think of the bravado of Lancelot singing “C'est Moi" in Camelot.). Davis just oozes Majesty and sex appeal on stage, while his voice is clear and powerful. Yet he, too, is duped by Pseudolus.
The courtesans – “Tintinabula, Panacea, Geminae Twins, Vibrata, and Gymnasia” – are so amusingly and seductively played as their namesakes by Meredith Pughe, Alexandra Van Hasselt. Victoria Joleen Anderson, Alexandra Dow, Lauren Cluett, and Ashley Rubin respectively, while ”The Proteans” who are called upon by the characters to play different roles to move the comedic plot along are entertainingly and sometimes acrobatically played by Stephen Eisenwasser, Frank Francisco, and Elijah Pearson-Martinez.
This classic production is under the capable directorial hand of Jonathan Van Dyke who also coordinated the costumes and a special mention should be made of the original set design by Cindi Taylor and superb wigs by Justin Lore. Lighting Designer is Rachel Weis. Sound Engineer Vincent Bryant’s work excelled: rarely have we been at a performance where every word can be clearly heard, whether said or sung, so important in this production. Even James Danford came out of retirement briefly to serve as Stage Manager, no small feat in this show. Paul Reekie serves as a musical director of a band of six which in the intimate Rinker Playhouse sounds like a full Broadway orchestra.
I mention all these names as they are South Florida actors and theatre technicians who deserve our support, especially as together they created a “pretty little masterpiece” (as sung by Pseudolus in the song “Pretty Little Picture”).