Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
The ancient Roman scene on Foothill Music Theatre's stage is well set by Kua-Hao Lo's layout of a street with three large houses surrounded by hills of crowded neighborhoods, all done with a cartoon-like flair appropriate for the farce about to begin. Living in the center, balconied home is the patrician family of Senex, Domina, and 20-year-old son Hero along with slaves Hysterium and Pseudolus (the latter, our narrator and self-proclaimed star of the show). Their neighbors are a crooked, bearded old man, Erronius, who is setting out to find his now-adult children stolen away at birth by pirates, and a crafty businessman, Marcus Lycus, who runs a house full of foreign women serving up their bodies for men's pleasures. Young Hero catches the eye and the heart of one newly arrived courtesan (and still virgin, Philia) but soon discovers she has been sold for a small fortune to a renowned Roman warrior, Miles Gloriosus. Pseudolus convinces his lust-filled master Hero that if he can attain Philia for him, Hero will award his shrewd slave his freedom. The crafty, often lying (but for good causes) Pseudolus sets on a quest that borrows the antics and the ploys of Harold Lloyd, Keystone Kops, and Abbott & Costello in order to arrive at a happy ending for all.
Forum provides any theatre company full license to pull out all stops to be as crazy, bawdy, and slapstick silly as possible. Puns and one-liners (written and ad-libbed), slamming doors, chase scenes galore, mistaken identities on top of mistaken identities, and stock characters who can clown to their heart's content are all part of the plan. And for the trip back to 200 BCE Rome to really work, all must be directed in well-timed, non-stop fury by a great singing and dancing cast. Foothill Music Theatre, a much-loved and much-awarded San Francisco Bay company known for its summer musicals, has mounted a Forum that has checked all the boxes of necessary ingredients for that expected evening of hilarity. But co-directors Milissa Carey and Michael Ryken have played everything much too safe, failing to "color outside the lines" enough to bring the house down in the uproarious laughter that is the potential outcome of this musical.
In this Forum, slapstick trips, tumbles, and pranks are too often lacking imaginative flair and needed split-second timing. Face slaps and body hits during what should be silly fight scenes miss their mark by such distances that there is not enough sense of reality to draw desired laughter or to believed even tongue-in-cheek that the injured parties are in fact injured. A show that is known for its bawdiness is, in this case, overall so G-rated that it loses lots of opportunity to be titillating funny (as in the rather bland, non-sensual, poorly executed dances of the five courtesans in act one). The climactic chase scenes are mostly just lines of people running back and forth across the set with a few slamming doors, and fail to capture the kinds of over-the-top, frantic chaos that we expect and want to see. The icing on the disappointment cake is Michael Ryken's bland, elementary choreography that does not accentuate enough the wonderfully funny lyrics and clever music of Mr. Sondheim along with costumes by Robert Horek that too much resemble Amazon-ordered Roman outfits or deco-colored nightwear.
The cast performs admirably but rarely spectacularly. Songs are sung with pleasing-enough voice, and the lyrics are universally delivered with clarity. Doug Santana enthusiastically brings high energy and stage command to his Pseudolus and sings with confidence throughout. But missing is the crazy clowning, the spark of spontaneous ad-lib, and the shaping of Pseudolus into his own unique version of the riotous character Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart have penned.
Other cast members have individual strong moments when they shine with needed quirkiness, flamboyance, and silliness. Ray D'Ambrosio (Marcus Lycus), Todd Wright (Senex), Mike Meadors (Hysterium), Anthony Stephens (Hero), and Jessica Whittemore (Philia) all bring creative nuances to their parts and tend to sell their songs well enough to be pleasant but usually not enough to be memorable. Duets among them are often effective, the best being between father Senex and son Hero who each suspect in "Impossible" that the other is flirting with Philia (and that she is returning the favors). The usual showstopping quartet with Pseudolus, Senex, Lycus, and Hysterium ("Everybody Ought to Have a Maid") is a great example of a noble effort on the actors' parts with nothing being wrong in their delivery of song or dance but nothing happening that causes the audience's guts to split in laughter or people to wake up the next morning chuckling with the images of the four lingering in their minds.
Overall, Foothill Music Theatre provides us with a pleasant venture into ancient Rome, but I fear the trip will be too soon forgotten. This is a journey that could have been much more if this cast had been given a bit more leeway to let loose and clown it up in order to let this wonderful show's lyrics, music, and book do their magic of providing outlandish entertainment.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues at Foothill Music Theatre, Smithwick Theatre, Foothill College (I-280 at El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills) through August 9, 2015. Tickets are available online at www.foothillmusicals.com or by calling 650-949-7360.
- Eddie Reynolds