Why do we love musicals? What is it about them that grabs our attention with such ease? One cannot deny their aptitude to draw an audience; even individuals who say they “don’t like plays” are typically hard-pressed to say there are no musicals they love. The spectacle is the usual draw: music, laughs, lights, song, and dance to leave a hop in your step as you leave the theatre. Of course, I’m not suggesting that musicals are all about spectacle as they often pull the strongest emotional responses from viewers (an intense production of The Phantom of the Opera sparked my interest in theatre and music at the age of 12). However, it occurred to me prior to viewing The City Theatre’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum that I had never seen a musical in a black box theater such as the The City Theatre. Naturally I wondered how they would produce a traditionally spectacle-driven medium in such an intimate space. If nothing else, it promised to be an interesting experience.
A Funny Thing Happen on the Way to the Forum, Stephen Sondheim’s 1962 musical farce based heavily on the works of ancient Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus, and akin to Molière’s farces and Shakespeare’s comedies, is a tale about Pseudolus, a quick-witted slave with a propensity for silver-tongued lies, attempting to earn his freedom by aiding his household’s lovesick son in obtaining his dream girl, with plenty of mistaken identity, love triangles, trickery, and cross-dressing throughout.
Directed and Choreographed by Missy Barnes, The City Theatre’s Forum cuts down on the grandiosity inherent in musicals in exchange for an experience more akin to a play with occasional songs as opposed to a musical, and that’s totally fine. The choreography and blocking are nothing new or exciting, but they serve the purposes of the production well enough. Similarly the set design (Andy Berkovsky, Adam Witko, and Carlo Dringenberg) is simple in execution, consisting of three monochrome house fronts, but it allows enough passageways, doors, and alcoves for the cast to run through, leading to comical chases and gags utilizing the entire theater (including the audience) for comedic purposes (in particular, an enjoyable recurring gag involving LeRoy Nienow (Erronius) circumnavigating the theater). In place of a full orchestra, Forum is accompanied by Clifford Bond, Ian Geyer, and Chris La Cava (Piano, Drums, and Bass respectively) who lend the production enough melody to support the show’s musical numbers without neglecting the audience.
The standout performance in Forum comes from its lead, R. Michael Clinkscales (Pseudolus), who maintains a demeanor and physicality similar to previous actors to have played Pseudolus such as Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane. His infectious fervor and aptitude for facial expressions keep the audience entertained whenever he’s onstage plotting another sly scheme for his freedom. Musically the cast varies greatly. Not every member could maintain a solo, but, as an ensemble, they sing beautifully. As a whole, the cast maintains a proper level of enthusiasm that keeps them and the audience energized and invested. However, many cast members found themselves stuck in the roles of stock characters which, while not unenjoyable, did not engage as much as they could have. Whether this was an intentional choice by Barnes, or the natural result of performing a farce I cannot say, but it often left the characters feeling standard and predictable.
Forum is not treading any new ground, but I don’t believe that was The City Theatre’s intention going into this production. Forum offers a joyful experience that will leave you in a good mood, whistling the songs on your way home. What it lacks in spectacle it makes up for in heart and enthusiasm noticeably emanating from the cast. They are having so much fun onstage that you cannot help but be happy with them. If you’re looking for a pleasant evening with a few good laughs then A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is the show for you.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues playing at The City Theatre every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm and every Sunday at 5:30pm until September 20th.
★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩